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HAMMOCK: Duluth football program on the rise

Sports Editor Will Hammock 

Sports Editor Will Hammock 

A look at the raw numbers of this high school football season isn’t fair to the Duluth football program.

The Wildcats have a 1-6 record, the lone win coming against Meadowcreek. They lost their most recent game to North Gwinnett 52-21, a lopsided score that many prep football fans assumed was a typical blowout victory for Class AAAAAA’s top-ranked team.

It wasn’t, though.

Duluth showed its mettle in the loss to North, battling the Bulldogs to the bitter end. North led just 17-13 at halftime and was up 31-21 until a touchdown in the final minute of the third quarter. Two fourth-quarter scores, one with 1:21 left, made the final score worse for Duluth than it should have been.

“Even though the score at the end didn’t really reflect a close game, we felt like we improved dramatically,” first-year Duluth head coach Jason Conner said. “Our boys continue to compete. We’re not going to beat these teams overnight. It’s going to take a lot of work. It’s going to take a lot of work on the field and it’s going to take a lot of work in the weight room.”

It’s a mission that Conner, a young and energetic coach, is ready to take on.

His team might be represented by tangible numbers, like the single win or the 52-21 loss to North, but outsiders can’t appreciate what is going on inside the program. Duluth is working hard to improve on itself, the first step in competing with the big boys of Region 7-AAAAAA. The gains, even when they don’t appear on the scoreboard, are getting the Wildcats closer to that goal.

To accomplish a feat like a playoff berth, Conner and his coaches are working against history, too.

Duluth’s football program hasn’t reached the postseason since 1994. It hasn’t sported a winning record since 1995, when it was 7-3 under Mike Strickland. Only once since 1996 has the program gone .500 — when it was 5-5 in 2003 under Bill Shields.

Between 2004 and 2009, the Wildcats truly struggled with a 6-54 record. Corey Jarvis led a resurgence the past three years with four-win seasons, which showed Duluth had a good team in comparison to many non-region teams, but just an average one in one of the state’s toughest AAAAAA regions.

Give Conner and the Wildcats some time, and they’ll push past that history. They have solid participation, good coaching and some extremely talented young players, a formula that leads me to believe we’ll see Duluth get better and better in the coming years.

At least that’s the Wildcats’ hope. And mine, too.

“We’re excited about the future,” Conner said. “We feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”

Will Hammock can be reached via email at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/willhammock.