It was in the heat of summer Lakeside coaches learned they had a group of football players capable of winning more games than any group in the school's 21-year history.
As the Panthers sweated through workouts, there was never any teasing or needling if a player struggled to finish a drill, coach Jody Grooms said.
"They were encouraging, instead of tearing them down," Grooms said. "We knew right then when we saw those attitudes we were going to be all right."
The Panthers ended up more than all right. They set a school record for wins (10), captured a Region 3-AAAA title and played host to two state playoff games for the first time. Grooms is The Augusta Chronicle Coach of the Year for overseeing this rise two seasons after calling an illegal play that nearly cost him his job after his first year.
"Our competitors are starting to look at us a little differently. ... Unfortunately, when I first came here I made a horrible decision and tried to cheat that process, to speed up that process," said Grooms, who was stripped of his athletic director's position and suspended for the first two games of the 2008 season for calling that illegal play in the 2007 season finale. "People were talking about Lakeside everywhere, but it wasn't in the light that we wanted Lakeside mentioned."
Even when Grooms was suspended, his players spoke of winning those games for him. This year, many of those same players grabbed his neck for hugs as they watched fireworks explode in the sky, celebrating their 9-1 region-title season. The connection was obvious.
Grooms said he learned at his first job you can get better results out of kids the more you know them. He said he uses his planning period to stroll the lunchroom to talk with students.
"That was the first thing they always told me: get to know the kids, try and connect with them," Grooms said. "That's just something that's always remained important to me."
Grooms accepted the job at Lakeside during the winter of 2007. He can sound poetic when talking about the decision he made to move here from Anson County, a rural North Carolina area between two of the state's largest cities: Charlotte and Fayetteville. The area was much like where Grooms grew up, in a one-stoplight town in South Carolina's Marlboro County.
"When (Anson County's) textile industry shut down, the school community started drying up," he said. "A lot of kids would graduate, walk across the stage, go to college and never come back home. We started losing our future leaders. I felt like it was time for me to change, and it's been a big adjustment for me."
Grooms believes the success of Lakeside can endure because of this team's dedication. Last year, when his team didn't make the playoffs, he returned to school the following Monday and found everyone in the weight room, ready to go to work. After the Panthers lost in the second round this season and took a week off for Thanksgiving, everyone was back again. The winning example, Grooms said, has been set by a small but responsible senior class.
"Our kids have had fewer and fewer on-the-field and off-the-field incidents, because they think they are suppose to behave like a Khadi Tshishiku, like a Chris Tynan, like an Alan Marionneaux," he said. "That is what has helped us grow."