HAMMOCK: Dacula football survives, thrives despite shrinking student body

The opening of a new high school brings rare excitement in many ways, whether it's studying in pristine classrooms or donning never-worn game jerseys.

Then there's the other side of the equation, the schools who lose students when a new high school opens its doors. While they get some relief for overcrowding, their athletic programs also can be hit with the equivalent of a knockout punch that requires years of recovery.

That can be easier to overcome in a sport where it takes only a few athletes to compete. The same isn't true for Class AAAAA football in Gwinnett, where it takes hundreds of players to have a shot against other stacked programs.

Which makes it amazing at what Dacula's football program accomplishes year in and year out. The Falcons withstood three rounds of knockout punches in a five-year period, first losing roughly 1,200 students to Mill Creek when it opened and then losing more to Archer and Mountain View.

The high school's post-Labor Day enrollment was 1,967, just 67 kids above the Georgia High School Association's cutoff for AAAAA schools. Meanwhile the school up the road that pulled so many kids from Dacula, Mill Creek, has nearly twice that many -- a county-high 3,507 students.

Those kind of losses can bury a football program. And they have. Collins Hill's opening gutted Central Gwinnett. South Gwinnett took a hit when Grayson opened. Duluth had trouble bouncing back when Peachtree Ridge's debuted.

Dacula, meanwhile, hasn't missed a beat with five playoff appearances the last six seasons.

The Falcons have a small senior class by AAAAA standards of 14 kids, and stretch their sophomores, juniors and seniors to fill the varsity and junior varsity teams. Unlike larger programs, where JV teams have their own practices to focus on their games, they use JV players as the varsity's scout team all week. That may hurt the JV's record, but it's kept the varsity going.

They have defeated Region 8-AAAAA heavyweights Brookwood and Parkview two straight times each, with three of those four games on the road. They also have beat rival Mill Creek in back-to-back seasons.

The success is a credit to head coach Kevin Maloof, who has stuck with Dacula for 20 seasons and who one day should have his name beside "Red" Barron as the stadium's namesake. It also says a lot about the quality assistant coaches he has surrounded himself with over the years.

Most importantly, it says a ton about the perseverance of Dacula's football players. They've taken their share of punches, but they refuse to go down.

Even as their enrollment does just that.

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays.