Are the once-might, slowly-improved Sumner Bulldogs moving forward or falling backwards? That will be the prevailing question, as the former perennial state contender embarks on another high school football season.
Like all of the high school football teams throughout the state of Missouri, the Sumner Bulldogs officially opened training camp yesterday. But unlike the many elite programs, which it used to be, Sumner can't set its sights on winning a state title, rather it must focus on simply winning, since victories have been hard to come by of late for the once-dominant program.
In fact, two seasons ago, the Bulldogs experienced epic futility by their old standards, by going 0-for 2012! Last season they rebounded with two victories: a 12-8 triumph over St. Vincent on the road in Perryville, Missouri and a 28-0 wipe out of league foe ROTC to help erase the sting of an 0-8 campaign.
"It was tough,"said Sumner linebacker Trevion Leonard after that fateful winless season. "I didn't think I would go through the whole season without a victory. But as it was happening, I just tried to make the most of it."
Leonard, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound linebacker who graduated that school year, did indeed do his part that campaign by recording 142 tackles, 12 quarterback sacks and five forced fumbles to garner first team all-conference in the Public High League. The problem for Sumner is they didn't have enough players close to Leonard's talents and they have lacked talent, depth and experience to match the likes of two-time defending champion Career Academy or even the second-tier teams in the conference and outside the conference in their Class 2 playoff bracket. For instance, McCluer South-Berkeley pulverized them 75-0 in Class 2 district play last season.
Sumner athletic director Anthony Mitchell is firmly supportive of current coach Johnnie Randle, and cognizant of the challenges he faces well beyond his control. For example, as now-defunct Beaumont eventually dropped football and allowed the new Northwest to absorb Beaumont students who wanted to continue playing football, the Northwest Hornets surpassed the rebuilding Bulldogs in the process.
"When Beaumont dropped its program that only helped Northwest stay ahead of Sumner," says former Beaumont head Melvin Walls, who led the Bluejackets of Beaumont and later the Gateway Tech Jaguars to PHL titles. "Northwest was able to add good athletes from one program to another program and that will make you much better. The Northwest-Beaumont merger really hurt Sumner's football program. Plus, Sumner has been very young."
Before that state association-approved merger, Sumner's program was already declining after a brief resurgence under Harvey in 2008, when the Bulldogs posted a 7-5 mark, which included the Bulldogs' last playoff win: a 28-27 squeaker over Ladue. But even then the Bulldogs were winning with extremely under-sized talents, such as quarterback Jerkeem Jones who rushed for 1,369 yards put just passed for 819 yards, Jeffrey Yates who rushed for 928 yards, both of whom were under 160 pounds. The Bulldogs were one of the smallest teams in the area and didn't have much depth,either, so long-term struggles appeared certain.
In 2009, in Harvey's last campaign there, Sumner dropped to 4-6 and that was followed by consecutive 1-7 campaigns, where their lone wins in 2010 and 2011 came over the depleted Beaumont teams
The pursuit of a state championship used to be an annual rite of summer training camp for the once-proud Sumner High Bulldogs and their former coach Lawrence Walls, long a member of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame. Walls helped guide the Bulldogs to nine state championship final games, and state titles in 1973, 1982, 1990 and 1991.
Hollis Thomas, who actually shuffled between linebacker and the defensive line on those state championship teams, became the most prominent alumni from the group.Thomas went to enjoy a 13-year career in the National Football League as a defensive linemen, including nine as a starter with the Philadelphia Eagles after starring at Northern Illinois University.
But Thomas was hardly the only ex-Sumner player to achieve success or prominence on a higher level: Former defensive back Darnell Walker was a starter for several seasons with the Atlana falcons and San Francisco 49ers, after being named All- Big Eight for the Okalhoma Sooners in 1991.
Former defensive linemen James Gregory started at nose tackle on the 1992 University of Alabama's national championship team under former St. Louis Cardinals coach Gene Stallings. Former running back Ben Cowins starred at the University of Arkansas from 1975-1978 and held virtually all of the school's rushing records all the way up to 2007 when current Oakland Raiders star running back Darren McFadden broke most of the marks.
Former Sumner star running back Anthony Stafford was a rotating starter on the 1987 Oklahoma Sooners' team, which lost to the Miami Hurricanes 20-14 for the national championship in the Orange Bowl. Former linebacker Terrance Rice-Lockett was a standout at the University of Louisville.
Additionally Sumner's coaching tree encompasses local high school and college success. The ex-running back fraternity has really thrived: Former Sumner running back Sorrell Harvey has built the dominant PHL program in recent seasons as head coach of the Career Academy Phoenix.
Another former Sumner star running back Corey Johnson is now in athletic administration in the Hazelwood School district, after having a stellar career as head coach of the Hazelwood East Spartans, which included two state runner-up championships and several league titles in the rugged Suburban North Conference.
But last but not least, yet another former Sumner running back Bobby Williams, has been a part of multiple national NCAA titles as offensive assistant with Nick Saban first at LSU when the Tigers captured the 2003 championship, then three times with Saban as the Crimson Tide took home college football's top title in 2009, 2011 and 2012. But even before the Southeastern Conference (SEC) success, Williams distinguished himself briefly as a college head coach by becoming the first Michigan State coach in Spartans history to win his first two postseason bowl games in 2000 and 2001.
By the same token, the Bulldogs had marvelous backs who didn't have collegiate success but left indelible marks with the Bulldogs lore, such as the late great Sha'lom Manuel, a bruising fullback, who spearheaded Sumner's breakthrough 12-0 victory over a powerful East St. Louis Flyers program in 1993 after four straight season-opening losses to the Illinois powerhouse, which had one mythical national championship, five state championships and two state runner-ups on their resume.Manuel and a trio of underclass defenders Edwin Dotson, DeAndre James and Famous McKenney III keyed that win. Then there was prolific scatback/ kick returner Darris Pierce who sparked the '90 state champion with an even 200 yards rushing in the title triumph over Webb City. Cornerback Ronnie Wingo, also came up big in that contest.
But along with the head coach Walls, the Bulldogs had outstanding coach, like defensive coordinator Richard Perry who numerous offers to lead programs himself but remained loyal to Sumner. Then during that 90's run the offensive line coach was one of the most qualified prep unit coaches a program could have in Ernie McMillan of the old St. Louis Cardinals (now of course Arizona Cardinals). McMillan had four Pro Bowls and two All-Pro seasons through the early '70s for the Big Red. His Sumner state-champion unit of tackles Rodney Epps (275) and Napoleon Williams (280), center Arte Middleton (320) and guards Cerfonz Parker (245) and Danny Spann (245) was considered second among line units at that time.
"We're aware of the great history and the great tradition," said Randle after his first year. "We have a young coaching staff and we're trying to revitalize the culture."
. Even the year after Walls retired as head coach after the 1997 campaign the Bulldogs weren't dome making a postseason splash. With longtime defensive coordinator Richard Perry at the helm and bruising tailback Tyron "The Train" Griffin spearheaded the offensive attack with nearly 2,000 yards rushing, , the Bulldogs still made as far as the Class 4A state quarterfinals. But they lost to eventual state champion, Jefferson City Helias.
It marked the second straight postseason that the Helias Crusaders had eliminated Sumner in the quarterfinals, as they did in Walls' final game as head coach and eventually moved on to the Class 4A championship before losing themselves 15-14 to Camdenton.
But after that O-for 2012 season, the Bulldogs appeared to be making progress last season. In between the St. Vincent and ROTC victories, they played tough league games against Roosevelt (9-6) and Gateway (14-7) before losing. In fact, just one year removed from his team blowing out the Bulldogs 48-0, Gateway Jaguars coach Jason Dulick noticed the reversal of difficulty in putting Sumner away, since it took double overtimes for his team to emerge victorious.
"I am really impressed with how Coach Randle has turned the Sumner football program around," noted Gateway coach Jason Dulick back then. "He has those kids believing and the program is going in the right direction. We had a difficult time moving the ball on them. They have some athletes over there that fly around the ball.Offensively they are much improved and their quarterback (Jaiurus Robinson) gave us fits with his ability to escape the rush and get out of the pocket. We just happened to get a couple breaks, play some good goal-line defense and come out with the win in the end."
But unfortunately by season's end for Sumner, the young, over-matched Bulldogs were trending down-way down, again.
Even though the McCluer South-Berkeley team which overwhelmed Sumner 75-0 was an eventual state semifinalist, which also manhandled a 10-1 O'Fallon Christian team 51-0 and a 10-2 Duchesne team 40-13 in subsequent playoff rounds, Sumner came to the game in worse shape than normal because of key player defections, including three-year starting quarterback Robinson.
"We had to play with a bunch of junior varsity players," said Sumner athletic director Anthony Mitchell. "We would have considered forfeiting the game but you can't forfeit playoff games. Some of the veteran players just quit on the team and the coach, which is a shame because he (Randle) is a good coach who deserve better."
As it turns out, a litany of factors off-the-field have also contributed to the Bulldogs' demise on the gridiron, such as a massive population decline in the historic Ville neighborhood, where they used to get students.
For example from 2000-2010, according to the United Census report, the 4th Ward of St. Louis, which bounds that Ville area, the population dropped from 8, 189 to 6,189. Coupled that with an increasingly higher dropout rate, the emergence of the free charter schools as an alternative for students in the area, along with more scholarships seemingly available for inner-city, gifted athletes and you have the myriad of forces now working against Sumner.
The Bulldogs have dropped from Class 4 to Class 2 in state enrollment-based classifications.But Mitchell says even that is misleading, in terms of defining current Sumner students as neighborhood pupils.
"Sumner hasn't been a neighborhood school for years now," says Mitchell of the school whose enrollment has dropped below 300 from its peak years of 1,200-plus. "We don't have the people. They have been busing kids into the neighborhood for school."
Sonchez Johnson, a star defensive lineman on those two consecutive state championship teams in '90 and '91 and now a teacher/wrestling coach at another PHL school, Roosevelt said priorities and the households are in flux more now.
"These kids have to deal with many different distractions," says Johnson. "A change in the economy has forced more students to work for survival and help their parents raise their younger siblings. Coaches are dealing with more single-family homes and younger parents than ever before, which may cause them to quit."
This season figures to be another rebuilding campaign for the Bulldogs, but the bad news is even if they win a few more games in the regular season they may eventually have to face those "other" Bulldogs, McCluer South-Berkeley who have become pretty formidable in their own right.
"I think he's still the right coach for the job," assures Mitchell. "He brought discipline to the program that the previous coach (James Williams) didn't have. We will just have a lot of young kids who will have a chance to develop together."