Capitol High football team building for more

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLAND -- Capitol High football players, from left, Willie Robinson, Anthony Thomas, Devondre Sullivan and Devin Joseph run drills Thursday, July 11, 2013 on Capitol High School's campus.
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER McCLELLAND -- Capitol High football players, from left, Willie Robinson, Anthony Thomas, Devondre Sullivan and Devin Joseph run drills Thursday, July 11, 2013 on Capitol High School's campus.

Anthony Thomas smiled when asked about the Capitol High School football team’s goals.

“A state championship is everybody’s ultimate goal, and that’s ours,” the Lions quarterback said. “We know that it’s not a goal everybody achieves and that you really do have to work for it. The freshmen coming in have to see us, the seniors, working hard. We want to go out with a bang.”

Never mind that Capitol finished 3-8 last season or that more than half of the 42-player squad is made up of first-year players. Players like Thomas and coach Claude Coleman said being a Louisiana Recovery School District member based on past academic performance is not a factor, either.

The Lions are shooting for the stars and want to shoot down some negative stereotypes along the way.

“It’s a tough situation when you’re trying to get kids to come to an RSD school,” Coleman said. “People get scared, and they back off. They don’t know what the school’s about or understand what we’re trying to do. People hear bad things or look at (academic) scores and stay away.

“In my 15 years of teaching, I do not see any difference between this school and any other school I’ve been at. We have the same resources, the same textbooks. It’s the willingness of the teachers to come here and teach. What some of our teachers did here with test scores last year was amazing. We’re looking to build on that.”

Breaking a mold

If Coleman doesn’t sound like a typical high school football coach, there’s a reason. He’s not.

The 40-year-old took over at midseason a year ago and went on to coach the boys basketball team that he was originally hired to coach.

The Mobile native was Alabama’s Mr. Basketball in 1990 and played two seasons at Grambling. In 1999, he moved to Baton Rouge to accept a teaching/coaching job at Broadmoor Middle School.

Coleman spent 12 years there, coaching football and basketball. He also was an assistant basketball coach at Istrouma in 2004 and was head football coach at Lowery Middle School in Ascension Parish for a season before coming to Capitol.

In addition to coaching, Coleman is Capitol’s dean of students. On the wall of his office is a large picture of himself and teammate Kenny Sykes with Grambling’s legendary football coach, Eddie Robinson, a Baton Rouge native. Sykes is now the basketball coach at Woodlawn-Shreveport.

“Football is my first love,” Coleman said. “I played football and basketball in high school. Basketball gave me a better chance to get a scholarship, so I went to (junior college at Bishop State) and to Grambling. If you turn on two TVs and put basketball on one and football on the other, I’ll be watching the football game. That’s just me.”

Another coach, Mark Hannie, has been hired as Capitol’s basketball coach.

Cultivating change

Coleman took over before a Week 6 game with The Dunham School after Dameon Mills was relieved of his duties.

Talking a big game is the role some new coaches take. Not Coleman, who stressed discipline and began making subtle changes. The Lions won that first game and advanced to the playoffs, losing to traditional power Evangel Christian.

“What I wanted to do was change the culture of those young men,” Coleman said. “There was a lack of discipline and a lack of commitment by some of the players. I let the guys know I was going to hold them accountable.

“I think there was also a lack of trust. At a school this size, you can’t go out and hire five or six faculty coaches. And it’s tough to ask a nonfaculty coach who is not getting paid to do what a paid coach does. Some of the (nonfaculty coaches) who were here before weren’t at practice every day. That sends mixed messages. I told them if they couldn’t be here every day, we didn’t need them.”

The players quickly picked up on what Coleman was trying to do.

“Coach Coleman came in and instilled a lot of discipline and showed us that hard work is the only way to go,” said Cedrick Whitfield, a senior defensive back/receiver. “We’re working hard for him.”

Coleman has made tactical changes, installing a Pro-I formation offense to replace the spread offense most teams use. The run-oriented offense fits a team that averages 275 pounds on the offensive line. Former Broadmoor assistant Jessie Smith, the new defensive coordinator, will run multiple formations, relying heavily on the 3-4.

In the spring, Capitol posted a resounding win over another one of the area’s rebuilding teams, Belaire High.

Tradition and academics

Capitol has a rich football past that includes legendary coach Roman Bates, who won more than 200 games at the school and led the Lions to Class 4A runner-up finish in 1999. Just four years ago, current Southern assistant and former Lions quarterback Chadwick Germany led Capitol to the 2A semifinals, losing 21-20 to Evangel in overtime.

Bates and Capitol athletic director/girls basketball coach Alvin Stewart have offered Coleman support. He called both men mentors, and Bates has attended some practices.

Coleman and the players know there is a stigma attached to being an RSD school. Capitol was targeted for state takeover because of low test scores before 2009, then became a charter school. The charter was returned in 2011.

Once a school of more than 1,000 students while part of the East Baton Rouge Parish School System, Capitol had 200 students at one point and now projects a 315-student enrollment for 2013-14.

Coleman points to rising test scores, including a mark of better than 80 percent for English III and better than 70 percent for English II and U.S. history. The graduation rate is up to 95 percent.

“I don’t think it’s about RSD or EBR,” said Thomas, an honor student with a 3.8 grade-point average. “I think if you come to school as a student and work hard, you can have a positive outcome. If people came to watch us, they would see how disciplined and focused we are as a team.”

Principal Roy Walker is entering his second year and also is a key presence. The Tylertown, Miss., native was a defensive back at LSU in the mid-1990s. The former Belaire track coach sometimes lifts weights with the players, and he is quick to take out his cell phone and show them a video of his son, Mississippi State receiver/return specialist Jameon Lewis, scoring a touchdown against Ole Miss last season.

When asked about the state championship goal, Coleman smiles. He said the Lions will play in the Louisiana High School Athletic Association’s Class 2A nonselect division, which won’t have traditional private school powers like John Curtis and Evangel.

“I’m not being cocky, but I’m very confident,” he said. “With the hard work we’ve put in, it will be hard for another team to come in and manhandle us. I feel we’ll have a good year.”