What a difference a year makes.
Hillgrove turned things around in 2013, tying a school record for wins in a season with 11, while beating its archrival McEachern for the second time in four years and falling one win shy of capturing another region championship.
As a No. 2 seed in the playoffs, the Hawks traveled to No. 1 Camden County in the second round and stunned the Wildcats for the second time in three meetings in Kingsland to advance to the state. Had it not been for an injury to starting quarterback Elijah Ironside during Hillgrove’s game against North Gwinnett, it’s possible the Hawks’ could have been playing well into December.
“A season is so fragile from being a great season or a good season and a bad season,” said Hillgrove coach Phil Ironside, the 2013 Marietta Daily Journal/Cobb County Coach of the Year. “The year before, we lost three guys that we knew by losing them we’d be in trouble.
“A lot of this year was just hard work and guys buying in and listening to everything we said. We handled the highs and lows. Our kids worked hard under good senior leadership, and I thought we got better, especially defensively, as the year went on. Having a group that trusts their coaches works, and I think they did that all year.”
This is the second time Ironside has claimed coach of the year honors. The last time he earned the award was back in 2003 when he led Campbell to a 7-4 record and a state playoff berth.
“You appreciate it (getting awards) as a coach,” Ironside said, “but I think the biggest thing is the recognition of the seven guys that work with me. Just the job they do. You’re only as good as those around you. So, it’s really not a ‘me’ award, it’s a ‘how good those guys do’ award to me.
“I think our guys do a good job, and we have a reputation of working hard and those things. It’s a testament to the work ethic of my assistant coaches and the things they do. They’re the ones who do the labor and take care of things. I’m just the front guy.”
Pope coach Matt Kemper believes Ironside was the ideal candidate to receive the accolade.
“I think he does a great job with the guys they have,” Kemper said. “They’re a very talented football team, and he does a good job of managing things. He’s fun to be around as another coach. He wants to get together and talk ball and try to make both parties better. I respect that. He’s a hard-working guy that puts in the hours. And, certainly, it had to be a challenge being a head coach and your son is the quarterback too.”
Ironside’s son, Elijah, started for the Hawks under center all season. His experiences at home mimicked what his teammates felt as part of the program, and believes it’s a strong indicator as to why Ironside got so much out of his players.
“He gets to really know the kids,” Elijah Ironside said. “But, the way he leads the practice, if you’re late to practice or don’t show up a day, then you’re not playing that week. If you’re doing things wrong then you’re not playing that week.
“When he’s that strict on us, then I think it earns the respect of the players. So they know how to treat him and how the practice is going to run and how things will usually go. I think that all helps a lot with why he’s successful.”
Ironside’s best moments of the season occurred when Hillgrove picked up wins over Camden County and McEachern. His father passed away the week the Hawks played South Cobb and the funeral was the Sunday prior to the game against the Indians. At least 40 players and some assistant coaches showed up to the funeral in Knoxville, Tenn., and against McEachern, Elijah had done some things that he’s never done.
“Elijah never really does much when he scores,” Ironside said. “He just jogs off the field. Well, he threw two touchdowns early in the McEachern game and pointed to the sky. I just remember the feeling of seeing that. So, that was pretty special too.”
Ironside’s style has suited him well over the years, contributing to his success as a coach.
“First and foremost, we’re going to do things right,” he said. “We’re going to have discipline. That starts in the classroom. We’re going to behave, and that discipline carries over. It’s a year-long process and it never ends. With the discipline and the character part for us, I think our kids buy into it and believe in it. It works.”