When Craig Chambers talks about building a football program from the ground up, it’s more than just empty words.
It has to be that way at a school like Howe, which has never won a sectional football title. The Hornets will play for their first on Friday night against Lutheran in Class A Sectional 46, at a site still to be determined.
“It would mean a lot as a senior,” said quarterback Chris Mundy, who has passed for 2,265 yards and 23 touchdowns. “It would be big for the school and big for our families. This is home to me. I want to come back here when I’m in college and see how my boys are doing.”
Chambers, 42, is in his second year at Howe, but the process of building the program actually goes back much further. Chambers was coaching youth football in the city – including many of the players who are with him now at the Eastside school – when he was asked to join Emil Ekiyor’s staff at Tech in 2011.
It was that same year that Tech had received a $125,000 donation from USA Football for football equipment, a step toward building its program. The vision of then-Indianapolis Public School superintendent Eugene White was to build a strong youth feeder program to later populate the middle school and high school teams, much like the township schools.
“Dr. White wanted to build IPS football from the youth leagues all the way up,” said Ekiyor, who resigned at Tech after last season. “Craig Chambers was coaching youth football in the city. He came to us and won two city championships at Harshman (Middle School). When the opportunity came at Howe, he took advantage of it. He’s done a great job.”
Howe was one of five chronically underperforming schools taken over by the state in 2012. Howe, Manual and Emma Donnan Middle School transitioned from Indianapolis Public Schools to the Florida-based Charter Schools USA. Though Howe received another ‘F’ on its state accountability grade on Wednesday, Charter School USA chief academic officer Sherry Hage said Howe is making gains in a positive direction.
Hage said athletic programs play in an important role in the rehabilitation of Howe.
“It was very clear to us in the beginning that parents and students want to see those (sports) programs brought back to the level they’d been in the past,” she said. “Whether it’s sports or an extracurricular like music, learning those skills are adaptable to the classroom. Clearly coach Chambers and (athletic director) Mosi Barnes have done an excellent job with the football team. That sense of team those kids have will translate to other areas in their lives.”
Howe’s smaller enrollment has helped. Instead of competing against 3A schools like Yorktown, Batesville and Edgewood like it has in recent years in the sectional, Howe dropped down to Class A after the state takeover.
“Our numbers have been pretty consistent the last couple years,” Chambers said. “Eventually I think we’ll probably move up.”
The Hornets went 7-3 last season, losing 14-8 to Lutheran in the first game of the sectional. Chambers beefed up the schedule this year, resulting in losses Tech (6A), Evansville Harrison (4A), Beech Grove (4A), Guerin Catholic (3A) and Heritage Christian (2A).
But this team, with a 6-5 record going into Friday, may be better prepared for a tournament run. Howe blasted Trinity Lutheran 60-14 in the first round of the sectional and survived a rough weather night to beat South Decatur 20-13 on the road.
“When we play the bigger schools it makes the littler schools seem easy,” Mundy said. “But we’re not going to walk all the way to state. We have a lot of work to do.”
Chambers has a 35-player roster, many of which are underclassmen. Mundy is the senior leader on offense and has a couple of standout receivers in senior Jerron McGaw (45 catches, 927 yards, seven touchdowns) and sophomore Dontea Henderson (48 catches, 941 yards, 10 TDs).
“I feel like we have the best skill set in the state,” Mundy said.
Eighth-ranked Lutheran (8-3) features a big offensive line and has been similarly tested by a quality schedule. Mundy had a pass into the end zone on the final play of last year’s sectional loss that fell incomplete.
“Lutheran is a powerful, explosive team,” Chambers said. “We’re going to have to put our best foot forward.”
Much of Howe’s current team played with Chambers in the youth leagues. Even now, in his position as the head coach, Chambers spends the bulk of his Saturday afternoons in the fall helping out with the city youth programs.
“That’s where you have to build it,” he said. “I’m in it for the long haul. We play together, we laugh together, we go to church on Sundays. I’d say 80 percent of this team has been together since they were 10 years old. It’s like a family. If we could win a sectional championship in our second year, I think that would be a pretty good story.”