EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the last in a series of stories following Grovetown High School's inaugural football season.
Grovetown began off-season workouts this week, a practice high school football coaches often cite as the Friday night difference-maker.
Warriors coaches reminded more than 30 players that they would work out four days a week, every week school is in session.
"If you want to get stronger and better at football, come on out," coach Rodney Holder told his players Monday. "We're going to be here. If we're going to continue to grow this thing, we're going to have to be here."
Among the players nodding their heads back at him were three seniors who had played their last high school game. They longed to remain part of something they had become so committed to.
In a school where everything smells new, these players were already part of the past, but they still saw themselves as part of the team.
"When (underclassmen) see the seniors back, they know it's not a game," said senior Antonio Beavers, who played his only season this fall and joined classmates Seth Hill and Dominique Mingo for workouts this week. "They know we must love it for some reason."
Grovetown was 6-4 in its inaugural season, which included four games against fellow first-year programs and two against probable state champions. As coaches helped the seniors construct highlight tapes for college recruiters passing through on their annual winter talent search, they longed to remain part of the team.
"All they wanted to talk about was sticking around to work," Holder said.
Ask the Grovetown seniors how their only season playing for the new school went, and they don't exactly answer. Talk instead drifts to a night after the season, when the school's principal invited them over for a steak dinner as a reward for their commitment.
Penny Jackson, an ardent University of Alabama fan who is married to Evans football coach Marty Jackson, said a football team's performance can affect the psyche of the school.
"As silly as it sounds, the success you have on the football field, and the spirit that you build, kind of jump-starts you for the year," she said. "A poor football team could set the tone for a poor year. We didn't have that: School spirit just kept building."
Spirit crested the final game of the season, when the outcome decided whether the first group of Warriors would have a winning record. Against Mount Paran Christian, a school from Kennesaw, Ga., that entered with eight wins in nine games, Grovetown stuffed a two-point conversion attempt in the final 71 seconds to win by a point.
"We went out the right way," said Hill, the team's star running back who tallied more than 1,400 yards.
Said Holder, "Going out and winning that last game was huge. Having a winning record -- people want to be associated with winners."
The legacy of Grovetown's first season is sealed behind a glass case near the school's gym.
Every member of the team signed a game ball, which is displayed alongside a No. 1 jersey given to Jackson. No Grovetown player can ever wear No. 1, Holder said, because it promotes individuality. Jackson, he said, "is the only No. 1 the school needs, because she is the person in charge."
The seniors imagine visiting the school years from now, still fit enough to wear their letter jackets and point out the memorabilia. They imagine coming back to root on a successful team, maybe one good enough to win a championship.
"Grovetown football is going to be huge one day," said Mingo, a long-armed defensive end. "But we will always be the first varsity team."
Holder said the attitude the seniors adopted and developed during their only season won't be forgotten.
"No matter what you've ever done, if you're willing to come in and work at something ... then you've got a chance," said Holder, whose team will compete in Region 3-AAA next season. "The whole mentality of hard work is what they left behind, and I hope it's rubbed off."
Reach Matt Middleton at (706) 823-3425 or firstname.lastname@example.org.