Photo by Christine Troyke
A few perks in the early stages of the new Lanier football program spoiled head coach Billy Wells, his staff and his players.
The Longhorns held their inaugural spring practice on the pristine, synthetic turf at Sugar Hill's Gary Pirkle Park, then their sodded fields at the new high school's campus were ready for early summer workouts. The amenities were nice in comparison to what other new Gwinnett football programs have dealt with in recent years -- scrambling to find fields at local elementary or middle schools.
"If you're starting a program, that was a great place to start," Wells said of the spring practice. "That got everyone excited and created a buzz in the community."
It's a buzz the longtime Collins Hill coach hopes to keep going into August, when Gwinnett's newest high school officially opens for classes. Wells has coached in a more established program the past two years, guiding Collins Hill to back-to-back playoff berths after being promoted from the assistant coach position he held for years.
His job at Lanier involves more than just being the head football coach -- he's also the Longhorns' athletic and activities director. He gets to have a say-so in every major decision involving the fledgling athletic program.
"For me, the challenge itself is a big part of it," Wells said. "I'm a guy who's always been motivated by the process and not just the outcome. That's just a part of being a football coach that I really enjoy."
And he knows it will be a long process.
His job has been made easier by the nice set-up he has at Lanier, including a campus that was ready for meetings and practices months before the school's opening date. But other issues, like equipment, the booster club, community support, have required some work.
At this stage, Wells is more than pleased with how the school is coming together.
"The kids are buying into what we want to do and the community is galvanizing," Wells said. "It's been great to work with the city of Sugar Hill. I guess the big, pleasant surprise of all this is that the area around the high school really is a community."
To outsiders, Lanier's location is one of the more intriguing aspects of the new school. The campus sits on the Southern tip of the attendance zone, which is located between two ultra-successful athletic programs -- and football powerhouses -- North Gwinnett and Buford.
The vast majority of Lanier's projected 850 students will come from kids who were in the North cluster.
"You're going to have that in Gwinnett," Wells said of Lanier's location. "At Collins Hill, we were between Buford and Peachtree Ridge. At North, you're between Peachtree Ridge and Collins Hill. At Brookwood, you're between Parkview and Grayson. You always have that element in Gwinnett County. The thing that's unique for Lanier is that we're encouraging our kids to play multiple sports. That's different in this age of specialization.
"That's one thing that will be unique in carving out a niche for Lanier. We're encouraging our kids to play other sports. We want our kids to have cross training and be able to play more than one sport."
From a football perspective, Wells has a group of 60 players that will be the Longhorns' first team. Half of the team comes from the incoming freshman class, with the sophomores and juniors making up the remainder of the roster. The team has only two seniors.
Lanier will play a non-region schedule with just one team, and one varsity opponent, second-year school Mountain View. Wells spent June working on getting his team better, but his focus in July will be more passing league work against other schools to give his players a feel for competition.
"We want the kids to understand the schemes we want and the expectations we have for our program," Wells said. "It's important to win, but we also want to lay the foundation here."