Photo: Graham Robson Meadowcreek's Keyon Rich (19) runs the ball during the game last week against Shiloh.
Three weeks ago as the final seconds ticked away in Meadowcreek's scrimmage with Clarkston, head coach Deario Grimmage heard some encouraging words.
"We did it coach," one of his players said. "We didn't lose."
It was just a scrimmage and while the Mustangs didn't lose to Clarkston, they didn't win either. It was a 7-7 tie.
But it was a small step for the struggling program that has lost 39 straight regular season games going into Friday's action against Berkmar.
"I wanted more with my competitive nature," Meadowcreek coach Deario Grimmage said. "But I took that moment and enjoyed it with the kids. We did take a stepping stone, but we have a long way to go."
Meadowcreek and Berkmar have been two of the county's struggling programs in recent years. The two teams combined to win just one game last year and that was from this contest, a 31-8 victory for Berkmar.
"I just know both of us are hurting," Berkmar coach Jonathan Sanks said. "We have to do our best with what we can and it's usually guys that have never played football until the ninth grade."
A common problem for Berkmar and Meadowcreek is the youth football association. Neither program has a feeder team that grooms players specifically for the high school. The Lilburn Titans were formed out of Bryson Park, but those players are split between Berkmar, Meadowcreek and sometimes other schools when they get to the high school level.
"It makes the playing field kind of uneven," Grimmage said. "You can't establish that continuity at a young age. Once we get that in place, the kids will be much better and we can compete at a high level."
Grimmage and Sanks have made it a point to establish their own youth programs in the coming years. Until then, they have to work with the players they have on the team. Many of them have never put on a helmet and pads until the ninth grade when they were recruited from the school halls by the coaches. Berkmar has 71 players in the program and Meadowcreek has 63. That's just a fraction of some of the teams they face like Brookwood, which has 183 in the program, and Norcross with 220.
"I really think the kids are buying into our vision, which is to help establish college-ready student-athletes," Grimmage said.
Grimmage and Sanks took over their programs in 2010 and have had to do a lot of building. Some of those positive pieces were evident in last week's season opener.
Meadowcreek lost to Shiloh 36-6, but there were some good things. Sophomore quarterback Patrick Mills threw a 53-yard TD pass to Kortez Towels. It was a rare touchdown for a team that scored 48 points all last year.
"They have a lot of athletic guys," Sanks said. "You don't want to give them any hope. If they get hope, they get a little faster, a little stronger and then you have a ball game in the fourth quarter and you wonder how you got there."
The big concern last week was on defense where the Mustangs fell into a 22-0 hole in the first half.
"We had a turnover early in the game and that shifted the momentum a bit," Grimmage said.
Berkmar led Duluth 15-8 last week in the fourth quarter. A fumble by the Patriots with less than six minutes in the game set up Duluth's game-winning touchdown.
"We should have won. We outplayed those guys," Sanks said. "We played well enough to win. I've got to do a better job coaching."
The fact that Berkmar was in the ball game in the fourth quarter was a change after losing by 27 or more points in nine games last year.
"I can't teach them how to win," Sanks said. "They have to learn on their own. It was a teaching moment."
The defense played about 70 snaps in the loss, but were led by Darious Mitchell's 15 tackles and Jaden Lee's 16 tackles and two tackles for losses.
"Sanks is taking them in the right direction," Grimmage said. "They have a good team and are very competitive."
Friday's matchup is the final game before beginning region play next week. The competition will get much tougher and both teams know this game is one of the few chances to get a win this season.
"Hopefully, we'll come out on top," Sanks said. "I want to see our team get better and play sound football."