Mario White’s first meeting with the Pike Liberal Arts Patriots drew 19 players shortly after he was hired in late February.
“It was tough. There were nights I wondered if I did the right thing coming here,” White said. “But my faith brought me down here and I knew God would lead me where I needed to go in teaching these boys our system.”
From those shaky early days, the Patriots will take 51 players to their preseason game Friday night at reigning AISA Class AAA state champion Bessemer Academy.
“We had to buy uniforms and helmets,” White said with a smile.
Some of those will be extra large. While Pike returns just three starters from last year’s 3-8 campaign, a number of new faces and transfers make this a potentially big year rather than a rebuilding project.
White said Levi Sikes (wide receiver and outside linebacker), Jackson Senn (safety and running back) and Kase Chirico (receiver and defensive back) are the only returning starters and only Senn and Chirico played the entire season.
Couple that with the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of spring practice and the summer limitations on programs and you appreciate how far behind White felt when workouts finally did begin.
“Spring training for a new coach is everything. All the really good programs I’ve been with, people have taught me about football that when you get to a new school spring training is where the tone is set for your program,” said White, who came to Pike from Tuscaloosa Academy.
“When we didn’t have a spring, at first I was a little panicked. Through COVID, man, I prayed a lot about what I was going to do if the Good Lord ever opened it back up. Everything I’m doing right now is the answers I got. It hasn’t been smooth, but I’m blessed with some really amazing assistant coaches and a lot of boys who want to learn. It’s really worked out for us as a program.”
White’s son, Mayes White, is the senior quarterback who will lead the Patriots’ Air Raid offense. Mayes White is already a Florida State baseball signee. The athletic, 6-foot, 175-pound senior is hardly the only college prospect on the team.
Caleb Guice (6-2, 296) is a transfer defensive lineman. Ryan Barnes is a transfer left tackle at 6-7, 350. Jeff Knox (6-1, 175) is senior cornerback who likely will play college football. Javon Christian is an athletic wide receiver. Peyton Dicks (6-2, 240) is senior linebacker, as is Sikes.
There are other college prospects in younger classes. Junior middle linebacker Kameron Baker is 6-2, 228 and runs a 4.5 40, White said. Gavin Williams (5-11, 235) is another linebacker prospect.
“But the freakiest of them all is a 10th grader,” White said, referring to wide receiver and safety Mario Davenport II, the younger brother of former Charles Henderson basketball standout Maori Davenport. “He’s 15, he’s 6-3, 175, and he’s got a 45-inch vertical. He might set every record in the state in basketball and football.”
Sophomore Connor Jones (6-4, 260), a recent transfer, stepped in and won the starting job at center. Another sophomore, Davis Kilcrease – “we call him Crash,” White said – has been outstanding on special teams and will work his way into the rotation on defense.
White’s biggest surprise, however, is eighth grader Jackson Booth, who has worked his way into a starting job.
“I tried everything not to put him on the field and he did everything to make me put him on the field,” the coach said. “When he doesn’t have the ball, he still runs routes full speed. If he’s not a primary guy, he’s always in the right place and doing the right thing. He’s big, fast, got really good hands and doesn’t shy away from contact. Everything we’ve thrown at him he’s caught.”
Scott Taylor Renfroe, a Troy verbal commitment, returns to handle all the kicking duties.
“I can’t take credit for this,” White said. “I’ve been blessed with some great assistant coaches. Robert Rollan does a great job as defensive coordinator.”
Ryan McCullough is the run game coordinator, Charlie Scofield is the assistant head coach and the JV head coach. Dee Brundidge coaches running backs, Alex Adams coaches the secondary, Rush Hixon is the wide receiver coach, Chandler Lunn is the JV defensive coordinator and former NFL player Cornelius Griffin is the defensive line coach.
“Coach Griffin may be a better coach than he was a player – and that’s saying a lot,” White said.
Pike is the smallest AISA Class AAA school, White said. There is a game on the schedule against his former squad Tuscaloosa Academy.
The Patriots’ first game on Aug. 21 against Freeport was canceled due to the pandemic. White said he hasn’t filled that opening, but he’s still looking.
From that first meeting with 19 players to preparing with 51 in uniform – and that doesn’t include non-varsity ninth-graders, things are looking up for Pike.
“I’ve been blessed beyond my wildest imagination,” White said. “It’s really been overwhelming.”
PATRIOTS AT A GLANCE
>> Head coach: Mario White (1st year at Pike Liberal Arts and as a head coach)
>> 2019 record: 3-8 overall, 1-4 in AISA AAA Region 2, first round of AAA state playoffs
>> 2019 results: at Morgan (W, 34-27, 2OT); Crenshaw Christian (L, 13-27); Freeport, Fla. (L, 28-43); Northside Methodist # (L, 13-30); at Macon-East # (L, 21-40); at Lee-Scott (L, 21-52); at Abbeville Christian (W, 54-14); Fort Dale # (L, 7-20); at Monroe # (L, 0-27); at Success Unlimited # (W, 10-6); Lakeside School (L, 34-35)
>> Points scored/per game: 235/21.4
>> Points allowed/per game: 321/29.2
>> Returning offensive starters (3): RB Jackson Senn (Sr., 6-0, 205); WR Levi Sikes (Sr., 6-2, 235); WR Kase Chirico (Jr., 5-11, 175)
>> Returning defensive starters (3): LB Levi Sikes (Sr., 6-2, 235); OLB Jackson Senn (Sr., 6-0, 205); DB Kase Chirico (Jr., 5-11, 175)
Aug. 21 Open
Aug. 28 Crenshaw Christian
Sept. 4 Hooper Academy #
Sept. 11 Lee-Scott #
Sept. 18 Edgewood Academy
Sept. 25 at Chambers Academy
Oct. 2 at Tuscaloosa Academy
Oct. 9 Open