Breaking the eight-year streak

Jefferson Tigers claw their way through playoffs

Ashley Hunter
ECB Publishing, Inc.

Without a doubt, the Jefferson Somerset Tigers had a good year of games and accomplishments during the 2018 Football Season.
With only five losses to dim the pride of the Tigers’ seven wins on the field, the season was a definite marker of how far the athletes and coaches have come in restoring the glorified name of the Jefferson County Tigers.
Starting off their year, the Tigers played against the Dixie County Bears on August 24.
While that home game marked a loss for the Tigers, the athletes clawed their way back and managed to score a win on the second game of the season against the Sneads Pirates (34-15) on August 31.
The next three games played by the Tigers against Lafayette (47-28), Florida A&M (25-22), and Hamilton County (19-6) would all be wins for the Fighting Tigers.
A loss would mar in the Tigers’ winning streak on October 5, when the Tigers suffered a disappointing 34-0 loss against Taylor County; a second loss against North Florida Christian (28-13) would follow on October 19. But the Tigers don’t stay down for long, and they took control of the field on October 26 when the Jefferson County team traveled to Miami to play against another Somerset charter school, Somerset Academy Silver Palms.
Against Silver Palms, the Tigers dug their heels into the dirt and secured a 26-6 win against their fellow Somerset school.
The triumph was short-lived, however, as the Tigers felt the sting of defeat once more when they fell to Wakulla High School’s War Eagles on November 2.
Coming home from the Wakulla game with a 49-13 loss seemed to light the fire in Jefferson’s Tigers once more, though, and the Tigers would go on to win their next two games against the Wewahitchka Gators on November 9 (35-16) and the Sneads Pirates on November 16 (44-13), both of which were 2018 FHSAA Football - Class 1A games.
For the first time in eight years, the Jefferson Tigers were shaking the soil and claiming playoff victories during both home and away games.
On November 23, the Tigers went head-to-head with Port St. Joe’s Sharks.
While the game was hard fought by both teams, it was eventually the Tigers that fell behind on the scoreboard, with the victory of a 35-20 final score going to the Sharks.
The Tigers might have lost the game, but for Head Coach Leroy Smith, the 2018 Football Season for the Tigers has not been counted as a loss.
“We haven’t been this far - this school, this community hasn’t been that far in eight years,” said Coach Smith. “It was an eight-year sequence of losing.”
While the Tigers didn’t make it to the state championship games, they came within sight, and finally broke out of their rut of game losses.
Breaking the history of losses has not been easy, however.
Coach Smith has been coaching at Jefferson High School for two years now, and says that he has spent the majority of those years building up the boys on his team and creating an atmosphere of improvement.
Looking back on the last two years, Coach Smith says that there have been hard times, rough times and difficult times when working with his group of high school athletes, but never once did he want to give up on the young men on his team.
“It was worth it,” he adds. “I love each and every one of those guys and that’s what love does, it forces you to work. When your brother falls, you pick your brother up.”
In order to create a team with the potential to win, the coaching staff at Jefferson Somerset has had to change the way the athletes practice, the way the athletes play, and the way the team viewed themselves.
“In order to be a winner, you’ve got to know what it takes to win,” said Coach Smith, and after years of defeat, Jefferson’s football team had lost touch with what it took to be winners.
Prior to Somerset Academy taking over the education of Jefferson County’s children, the youth at the school didn’t know what it took to become winners on the field or in life.
It was the hard work of the school staff and teachers that brought the students the pride of belonging to a Florida B-Grade school, and it was the coaches who are showing the athletes that they have what it takes to conquer the field.
Coach Smith says that the coaches made sure their athletes went to class and did well in school, but also helped them learn to pay attention to detail, and research the mindset of winners who fought for success.
As a former football athlete at Florida State University as well as in the NFL, Smith says that he was surrounded by winners himself; winners who helped inspire him when he was young.
From FSU’s Bobby Bowden, to the NFL’s Ricky Smith, Coach Leroy Smith walked alongside men who played the game and won the game; he wanted his athletes to learn that they too could achieve whatever they set their mind to and practiced for.
This year on the field, Coach Smith said it finally ‘clicked’ for his team.
“The kids, they wanted it,” said Coach Smith. “We saw them growing.”
This year, Coach Smith says that the coaching staff witnessed better work ethic amongst the athletes and the in-team competition was more robust as each athlete pushed himself and his fellow teammates to be better, faster, and stronger.
“It made our team better,” adds Coach Smith. “This year, the team was more cohesive, they worked together.”
The team also grew, as the Jefferson County School District saw students return to the county and enroll at Jefferson Somerset.
Some of those returning students were athletes who rejoined Smith’s team.
More than a few were seniors who returned to their hometown team, and this was their last shot at bringing the Tigers to the state championships before the senior students graduated.
While the Tigers fell just short of the state championship, Coach Smith says that he believes that the team had every strength it needed to make the game.
“I knew what we were up against,” said Smith. “I think we had the talent to win state, but when you are used to losing, you don’t know what it takes to win consistently.”
During this season, the Tigers went up against teams that were used to constant wins, and while the Tigers had the ability to win, Smith says, the teams they competed against knew how to play the game well.
“The teams that beat us were good. The teams that beat us were accustomed to winning, so they knew what it took to win. Our kids are still learning.”
A prime example of what Coach Smith sees in his boys was displayed in the game that the Tigers played against the Port St. Joe Sharks.
Despite a 15-point difference between the ending score for the Tigers and Sharks, a brief look at the Sharks year in review shows that of all the teams that Port St. Joe went up against, the Tigers raised the biggest fight and came away with the highest score against the reigning Sharks.
“No one scored 20 points on them, but we did it. The coach from Port St. Joe said it, we were the best passing team that he’s seen all year,” said Coach Smith.
Even though the football year is over for the Tigers, Coach Smith is staying on top of his athletes, making sure they keep their grades up and go to class.
“Everything is still going in the right direction,” he says.
This year is not the year that Jefferson County returns to the state championships alongside the football team, but these young men are still winners in the eyes of Coach Smith, and he encourages them to have the hearts of champions.
“Things aren’t always going to work out as you planned, but you’ve got to be able to get yourself back up…move on and keep going, never quit.”
As a former high schooler and football athlete in Gadsden County, Coach Smith says he grew up hearing stories and playing against the Fighting Tigers of Jefferson County.
He knew the reputation that the Tigers had, and he wants to see that team pride return for the benefit of the students and the community.
“I played against some of the great Monticello teams. I know what it’s like, I grew up hearing about the great Monticello athletes. I know the history, but I’m trying to teach [the students] the history,” said Coach Smith. “I’m trying to teach them what it takes to be great, not for just one game.”
According to Smith, Jefferson County is overflowing with talent both in academics and athletics, but it means that the adults need to hone that talent, keep the kids in school, guide the kids, and support them.
“The kids are the ones playing. These kids need coaches and teachers and community leaders to be there, to show up,” said Coach Smith, adding that he appreciates all that has already been done for his team.
Whether through donations of food and beverages, through donations that have allowed the Tigers to purchase new equipment, or just by coming out and supporting our hometown team at the games, Coach Smith says that the community has shown so much support for the Tigers.
He also wanted to extend a special thank-you School Board Members Sandra Saunders and Bill Brumfield for their assistance throughout the year.
“I want to thank everyone from the bottom of my heart for just supporting us because that’s what these kids need. The more we support these kids, the more they will be accountable to themselves and to others,” said Coach Smith. “We want the community to talk good about the kids, talk good about the teachers, talk good about the coaches.”
His job isn’t over just because the season has ended, because next year, there will be more games, more training and another shot at the state title.
“This is my life; I love these kids,” said Smith. “When I accepted this job, I accepted the challenge. I didn’t know it would change this quick.”
Whether it’s at home on the grounds of Tiger Stadium, or when the team is away, representing the county under the Friday night lights, Smith seeks to build a team that can boast of being one of the best teams in the state; a team that can carry the legacy that the Jefferson Tigers of the past won through sweat and blood. “It’s getting back to the Old Monticello, the Old Jefferson County.”