by James Coulter
They may not have won their last game of the season against Lakeland on Thursday evening, but the Highlanders Junior Varsity Football Team won big in spirit and life last Thursday evening.
Despite experiencing an undefeated season, the Highlanders lost their last game of the season at 20-22 to the Lakeland High School team, which had also been running at an undefeated season, explained Deanna Holtsclaw, a mother of one of the LW football players.
“We had one more touchdown but they flagged it so the boys feel like they gave everything they could and it was a great season all around,” Holtsclaw said.
Prior to their game that evening, the LW football team was treated to dinner at the end of their school day at their school’s cafeteria. The meal was catered by Carter’s Barbecue and bought and paid for by the city mayor and the city hall managers.
“We are very grateful because the boys came to school early, they spent all day working hard on their education, and then after school, they do not have time to go home and eat dinner,” Holtsclaw explained. “They stay at school getting ready for the game…[and] there’s a long drive, and all the time, they’re playing. So, the nutrition of their body is very important and we’re very grateful for the churches in the organizations that have donated food to help our boys play.”
Daniel Williams, Lake Wales City Commissioner, arrived that afternoon during their meal to offer the players words of wisdom and encouragement before their big game that evening.
He told them there were three things they should do as student-athletes: first, demonstrate their success with their academics; second, decide to have a good attitude; and, third, dominate the field as an athlete.
“I come to challenge you on behalf of the city tonight that, when you take the field on Lakeland tonight, that you dominate,” Williams told them. “Show them what a Highlander is. I am a Highlander. I know what it takes. Take the field today, fire it up…and display what Lake Wales stands for, who you are as men, and beat the brink off of Lakeland tonight.”
Upon taking up the mantle as head coach, Coach Tabaris Johnson built the JV football program on four pillars: accountability, commitment, relationship, and competition. He has instilled these values into his players this season, so that, even if they do not win on the field, they eventually take these values with them and win life.
“But most of all, this group understands football,” Coach Johnson said. “They play with soul. They are doing a great job. They are selfless and own everything and large purpose. That makes us who we are, day in and day out. Working on the little things, because little things become big things. But you have to play with grit, you have to play with fire…they understand that, they have soul, that is what we believe in. That defines them every day.”
Coach Johnson owes their success not to one player or strategy. His team truly works and plays as one, and everyone does a great job lifting each other up: “We do not have MVPs. Everyone is important. So, the most valuable players make the other players valuable and that is what the team has done.”
Coach Jarmaine Ward owes their success this season to the players themselves. He and the head coach only showed up to train them. They did the rest on their own, along with the help and support of their families and the city.
“The kids are all intelligent and just smart,” he said. “They are great players, hard hitters, and dominate with everything they do…They owe it to themselves. All I did was show up and coach them. They are very disciplined kids.”