A winning mentality has been a work in progress for second-year coach Daniel Armstrong in his short tenure at Fairview.
The Eagles have not secured a winning season since a 7-5 mark in 2015 and suffered a winless season in 2018, being outscored 499-34.
Although Fairview started its 2019 campaign with a pair of losses, the Eagles tasted something they hadn’t since Oct. 20, 2017 when they visited Morgan County on Sept. 13.
Fairview cruised to a 38-6 win and provided the youthful squad with a significant building block toward turning around the program.
“It felt good to get that win,” Armstrong said. “The scoreboard from Morgan County has been my background on my phone for some time. I told our kids, there’s no better feeling than winning a high school football game.”
Gracin Smith said it was exactly what the program needed.
“We went 0-10 the year before, so it was a breath of relief,” Smith said. “It felt great winning a game with my buddies.”
Fairview captured wins over Green, Ohio (26-22) and Lewis County (38-28), but Armstrong admitted those have not fully taken the program to where he wants to see it.
“I don’t think that winning mentality is back, but I do think we are working on it and last year went a long way for that,” Armstrong said. “I think we say that we do have the capacity to win games, but on the other side of the coin, we played some games that we didn’t compete in and were games that we probably could’ve won. So, we are still trying to develop that killer mentality and that’s a weight room thing. I truly think you build that in the weight room and you build that competing within your team.”
One game Armstrong quickly recalled was Fairview’s 34-14 loss at Betsy Layne, ultimately sending the Eagles to Paintsville for the opening round of the playoffs.
“The hardest part of winning is not getting beat,” Armstrong said. “You don’t get beat in your head. We were at Betsy Layne and on the 2-yard line and didn’t score. That’s a mentality thing. That’s not, one team is better than other or stronger than the other. If you are on the 2-yard line, it’s got to be ingrained in your heart and soul that you are going to score. We just aren’t there yet. Or we weren’t there yet last year. This year, I think things will be different.”
Fairview must start its plan without would-be third-year starting quarterback Jack Roy, who transferred to Spring Valley. Now, the Eagles turn to sophomore Tanner Johnson and junior Landon McDowell, who have battled neck-and-neck through camp.
“I’ve pulled them both aside and told them that one needs to separate themselves,” Armstrong said. “They are both competing at a high level and are making the decision hard on me on who to go with. They both have strengths and weaknesses, but what I love about both of them, they are locked into what we are doing and always give 100% effort.”
Regardless of who wins the starting job, Armstrong has already committed to both in the season opener.
“Week 1 against Morgan County, they will split the first couple series to see which one works better,” Armstrong said. “The good thing is they are both good athletes and can contribute at other places on the field. One will start at QB and the other will start somewhere else. They are too good not to have on the field.”
Neither saw action for the Eagles last season.
With Armstrong taking over as the offensive coordinator this season, his plans may look much different than the Eagles showed last year.
“I’ve told our quarterbacks they might be handing the ball off 40 times a game and then carrying it 40 times a game,” Armstrong said. “We are going to see who’s engaged in that game and who’s dealing.”
Smith is the lone returning back for the Eagles after tallying 541 yards on 92 carries with five touchdowns. But Armstrong does not plan on the offense running only through Smith — rather, a stable of backs and going to who seems to have the pulse of the game that night.
“We have five or six guys who will carry the rock, but I told our guys that we won’t have a 1,000-yard back,” Armstrong said. “But we could have several 500-yard backs.”
One of the biggest changes Armstrong was excited about was the ability to add depth to the roster while hopefully alleviating players being on the field for every snap of the game.
“Our ones and twos are really close this year, which is going to allow us to sit some guys on both sides of the ball, which helps them stay fresh,” he said. “We aren’t going to run guys like Jeremy Harper to death. He was a freshman and never came off the field last year. We’ve committed to a defensive scheme and we are going to live and die by it. Last year, we were in and out of as many as three different defenses and that’s not my style. It was a learning experience for me. This year, our offense is not only going to change the mentality overall, but it’s going to benefit our defense.”
Junior lineman Camron Mitchell said the ability to face someone who is as good or better at the position forces everyone to up their game.
“Once you have someone to compete against, you are working 10 times harder because you want that starting job,” Mitchell said. “Everybody has picked it up this year and is in a different gear.”
Armstrong hopes with the addition of Kevin Stewart and Scott Grizzle to the coaching staff, the offense can help take a lot of the pressure off the defense, a defense that often times last season would stay on the sidelines for less than a minute at a time.
“Our defense was hit and miss last year and we tried a lot of things and personnel,” Armstrong said. “That’s on me. I was defensive coordinator last year but on the flip side, the offense we ran last year I don’t feel was suited for us. We didn’t have all the pieces to make it work and when it doesn’t work, it makes things tough on the other side of the ball. When the offense turns the ball over in 30 seconds, I can’t live with that. I think our offense is really going to help our defense this year as far as it goes to grinding out the clock.”
But regardless of who starts at any position for the Eagles, Armstrong said the transformation in culture for the program does not start on the field and started as soon as the season ended.
“We’ve had a great year in the weight room,” Armstrong said. “We dedicated ourselves to a new weight program and we’ve been working on speed. When you get those things, those question marks in your head go away. When the other team goes down and scores, the thought process in your head is, OK, now let’s go score. But you have to build that confidence over time. It’s not something that happens overnight.”