SPRING GARDEN – Spring Garden senior fullback/linebacker Luke Welsh respects what head coach Jason Howard has done ever since he’s played on varsity for him in the eighth grade.
Welsh gives Howard a lot of credit for not only turning him into the player he is, but for building one of the top football programs in the state.
“That’s where it starts,” Welsh said of his head coach. “That’s the roots of the tree. He’s held us together and he’s gotten us to win.”
Welsh has been along for the Panthers record-breaking drive the past few years. He was a member of the team’s first 10-win season as an eighth grader in 2016, the first region championship team in 2018, and the school’s first season in Class 2A in 2020.
Speaking of 2020, this year saw the Panthers make even more history, despite the move up in classification and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did they win another region championship – their third in a row – but they made it to the state semifinals, finishing with school-record 12-2 season.
There’s no denying the roots of the tree are firmly planted in the Garden, and as Welsh said, it begins with Howard.
For leading the Panthers into more uncharted water in 2020, Howard is WEIS Radio’s choice for the All-Cherokee County Football Coach of the Year.
“Part of it (the success) is being an older coach,” said Howard, who just finished his 18th season as a head coach and 16th with the Panthers. “You don’t have the ego part of it. A lot of younger coaches come in and it’s going to be ‘This is what I saw. I don’t care what you saw.’ As an older coach, you realize the guys have a little better view of it.
“I’m big into taking ownership. I tell them I can’t keep an eye on 40 people. If somebody is slacking, you get on their butt. Take ownership. If they’re slacking now, come Friday night, they’re getting their butt whipped. We’re big on ownership, and part of taking ownership in everything is you have an opinion. We listen to our kids, and we talk to our kids.”
The ‘we’ Howard is referring to is his assistants, which include Tony Benefield, Damon McDonald, Barrett Ragsdale, Cory Sears, Kevin Ward and John Wilson.
“I’ve got great assistants. We’ve been together for so long,” Howard said. “I don’t mind letting Ragsdale do all of the defense because I trust him. Coach McDonald, Coach Benefield, they’re sort of the core that’s been here forever, and that’s big. I trust all of them to do their thing.”
Howard said another thing that’s been big when it comes to the Panthers’ success is a veteran team. Spring Garden had seven seniors in 2020, and even some of the younger guys had already gained valuable experience before this season.
With that experience came the trust from Howard to the players.
“On offense, I gave (junior receiver) Cooper (Austin) and (senior quarterback) Ryley (Kirk) their own (arm) band. I didn’t even know what (plays) was on it,” Howard said. “We sat down and said ‘These are eight plays. When you see what is going to work, ya’ll call it.’
“I can’t tell you the number of times they called a play and everybody was like, ‘What did you see on that play?’ I didn’t see anything. They looked out there and saw what the defense was. Ryley looked at Cooper, and Cooper held up what number he was about to run, based on how they were guarding him.
“I was like everybody else. When they ran it, I was like ‘Man, that was a good call.’ I tell them as long as you make me look good, we’re good. You start making me look bad, we’ve got a problem then,” Howard joked. “Having an older team allows you to do that. They made the right calls most of the time.”
And, according to Welsh, WEIS Radio made the right call when it comes to Howard.
“I think he’s definitely most deserving (for Coach of the Year),” Welsh said. “That’s not discrediting any of the other coaches in the county, but from what he’s done this year and the past couple of years, he definitely deserves it. He coached us up and got us to where we could win games. I’m proud of him.”
COMING FRIDAY AND SATURDAY: All-Cherokee County Players of the Year.