'BELIEVE' | How Iroquois broke with history and became football royalty

'BELIEVE' | How Iroquois broke with history and became football royalty

News

'BELIEVE' | How Iroquois broke with history and became football royalty

Iroquois faces John Hardin in KHSAA quarterfinals.

By

Iroquois faces John Hardin in KHSAA quarterfinals.

Iroquois_09JU

Iroquois’ football coach Preston King talks to the team during practice. Nov. 20, 2014

 

A large banner hangs in the office of Iroquois High School principal Chris Perkins, commanding those who visit to “BELIEVE!”

Perkins believes in this school, this community, this vision. It’s what has driven him since becoming principal in 2011 after a damning audit of the school. Since then, Iroquois’ percentage of college- and career-ready students has risen from 9 percent to 52 percent.

But even he acknowledges that it has been a long time since many believed in the Raiders’ football team.

Then came a year like this one, a year in which Iroquois has emerged from its forgettable history to craft a season that always will be remembered, one that defies belief.

PHOTOS: Iroquois starts to ‘believe’

VIDEO: Frakes and Spencer make their picks

Historically, the Raiders don’t play important football games in the middle of November. That will change Friday night.

“It doesn’t seem real,” Perkins said.

Iroquois — with 39 losing seasons in its first 48 years of football — is part of Class 5-A royalty this season. Improbably, the Raiders (11-1) are among eight teams left in the playoffs. They will host John Hardin (6-6) at 7:30 p.m. Friday, with the winner advancing to host a state semifinal game next week.

Not even first-year coach Preston King saw this coming for a team that was picked to finish last in its district in a preseason poll.

“To actually win the region and be one game away from playing for the state championship, there aren’t words to express what that would mean,” he said. “Nobody thought we’d be here.”

RELATED: Trinity, St. X meet in region final

RELATED: Game preview | Central at Corbin

Indeed, the Raiders’ history is full of disappointment.

Before this season, Iroquois had just two playoff victories in its history, beating Bishop David in 1979 and Butler in 1996. The Raiders already have matched that total this season.

This is just the eighth winning season in program history and just the second time the Raiders have reached 11 victories. The 1979 squad finished 11-1.

Since finishing 9-2 in 1994, Iroquois had 19 straight seasons without a winning record. In three seasons from 2009-11, the Raiders posted a 1-27 mark and were outscored by an average of 47-7. In 15 of the 27 losses, Iroquois was shut out.

Before taking the Iroquois job, King was the head coach at Valley for three seasons. He also is a 2000 Valley graduate and never feared the Raiders.

“When we used to play them, we felt like it was a win,” King said. “They just weren’t fundamentally sound.”

Perkins said the program hit bottom during the 2009-11 seasons.

“You’d look up in the stands and thank God the band was there,” he said. “We might have three or four staff members and maybe one or two parents up there.”

Things started to change in 2012 when the Raiders hired Mark Sander as head coach. He had led DeSales to a Class 2-A state runner-up finish in 2009.

Sander said people told him he was crazy for taking the job. His first few months were spent teaching the team grade-school-level fundamentals.

“They just didn’t understand football lingo that would just be natural for football guys,” Sander said. “We’d talk about north-and-south running, and they just didn’t understand it. We’d talk about hand placement or certain passing routes, and we didn’t really know if they knew what it meant. We just went to baby steps with them.”

It worked, as the Raiders were competitive during a 3-6 season in 2012. Last year they finished 5-5, just missing the playoffs.

Sander resigned in the off-season to become athletic director, and King was hired in the spring.

“He just had a hunger and desire in his eyes,” Perkins said of King.

And perhaps a tad bit of anger. King had followed the Valley program since he was 5 years old and didn’t want to leave. He was asked to re-apply for the coaching job when the school hired new principal Rob Stephenson.

King said he knew he wouldn’t get the job, even as he coached the Vikings in their regular-season finale against Butler.

“It’s still hard for me to talk about that last game,” King said as tears filled his eyes. “My 10-year-old son had to sit there and watch his dad weep. The fact that my 10-year-old son had to see that is the thing that gets me the most. …

“I don’t hold any hard feelings. I knew I was going to continue to coach.”

RELATED: Game preview | Butler at Ballard

RELATED: Game preview | DeSales at Christian Academy

RELATED: Game preview | North Oldham at Fairdale

King also applied for open jobs at Doss, Fern Creek and South Warren before taking the Iroquois position. He didn’t see it as a step down.

He liked the facilities at Iroquois, including a nice weight room and college-sized locker rooms and meeting rooms. The stadium needed some work, so he applied a few coats of paint himself and arranged for renovations to the restrooms.

Most important, the players were skilled.

“I was watching film on them before I was hired, and you could see they had talent,” he said. “They just didn’t know how to win, so we had to teach them how to win.”

The Raiders did just that, winning their first six games this season. The highlight was a 27-20 overtime victory at John Hardin on Sept. 26. Iroquois had gone 0-8 against John Hardin since 2007, losing by a combined score of 440-7.

“The seniors were crying after the game,” King said. “To get over that hump was huge.”

The Raiders suffered their only loss the next week, falling 27-20 at Grayson County, but since have won five straight.

Senior linebacker Milik Lewis, who leads the team with 147 tackles, said the players have bought into King’s message of unity.

“We’ve come together more as a family,” Lewis said. “We’re brothers who depend on each other. We trust in one another this year, and you can see out there when we’re playing. We fight for one another the whole game.”

After averaging 12.4 points per game last season, the Raiders are posting 32.3 per game this year. They utilize an option-spread hybrid offense that features running backs Larry Jackson (1,468 yards, 18 touchdowns) and Gerrome Kohn (749 yards, seven TDs) and quarterback Malik Saunders (735 yards, seven TDs).

To reach the state semifinals, the Raiders once again will have to beat John Hardin. The Bulldogs are 5-1 since the September loss and have reached the state semifinals each of the past six years.

Regardless of Friday’s outcome, the Iroquois community believes in its football team again.

“When we started the playoffs I told the kids that I wanted this to be the greatest Iroquois team ever and wanted to get to 12 wins,” King said. “They actually are the most successful Iroquois team ever at this point, no matter what happens Friday.

“But now that it’s here, it’s going to be harder than I thought if we don’t win this game.”

 

 GAME PREVIEW: John Hardin (6-6) at Iroquois (11-1)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Friday.

Next week: Winner will host Graves County-Bowling Green winner in Class 5-A semifinal.

John Hardin is trying to reach the state semifinals for the seventh straight season. The Bulldogs are 5-1 since falling to Iroquois on Sept. 26. They beat Grayson County 37-20 last week, getting a pair of fumble returns for touchdowns from their defense. Junior quarterback Shay Stone and senior running back Josh Miller lead the offense.

Iroquois’ two playoff victories this year match the school’s total from the previous 48 years combined. The Raiders posted their third shutout this season with a 14-0 victory over Bullitt Central last week. Senior linebacker Milik Lewis (147 tackles) leads a defense that is allowing just 9.9 points per game this season. Senior Larry Jackson (1,468 yards, 18 touchdowns) is the top rusher.

Quotable: “To actually win the region and be one game away from playing for the state championship, there aren’t words to express what that would mean,” Iroquois coach Preston King said. “Nobody thought we’d be here.”

The pick: Iroquois 21-20.

 

Jason Frakes can be reached at (502) 582-4046 and followed on Twitter @kyhighs.

More USA TODAY High School Sports