It was October 16, 2015, and the Warren Central High School football team was playing host to crosstown rival Warren East.
On the surface, it seemed like any other football game.
The Warren Central defense, led by Payton Donisi and Shawn Jewell, turned in a strong effort, and Chaunce Shanklin and the Dragons’ offense made enough plays to knock off Warren East 23-12. The victory pushed Warren Central’s record to 3-5, under former coach Clay Stephens, and there were regular-season games with traditional rivals South Warren and Greenwood on the horizon.
But at Warren Central, a tough job became even tougher.
Warren Central closed the 2015 season with three consecutive losses. In 2016, with Coach Joel Taylor at the helm, the Dragons seemed to hit rock bottom. Warren Central went 0-10, while being outscored 499-56. That’s no typo. The Dragons scored in double digits just twice that season.
It didn’t get much better in 2017. The Dragons went 0-11, while being outscored 439-74. It was a mentally difficult year for Warren Central, which at midseason was shut out in five consecutive games. The Dragons qualified for the KHSAA Class 4A playoffs, but they weren’t competitive in a 54-18 loss to Logan County.
It was more of the same in 2018, as Warren Central finished 0-11. In 2019, Cary Fowler’s debut season at Warren Central, the Dragons went 0-10, but they were competitive in a handful of games. Onto 2020, and Fowler’s second and final season, and Warren Central stumbled in at 0-7 in a season punctuated by the KHSAA’s COVID-19 protocol.
MARK NELSON TACKLES THE CHALLENGE WITH DRAGONS
Enter the personable Mark Nelson, a grizzled Pennsylvania guy intent on creating a different sort of football culture at Warren Central. Nelson knew what he was up against, when taking the job in March, but he was intrigued by the challenge. Warren Central has large numbers of international students, and their familiarity with football as children — — at least AMERICAN FOOTBALL — was probably limited at best.
Nelson was charging ahead, straight ahead.
And then the Dragons’ 2021 season opener was scrapped because of COVID. On August 27, two weeks after most of the teams in the Commonwealth had started their season, Warren Central played host to Trigg County. The Dragons fell behind by three touchdowns in the second quarter, stumbling 36-6 to the visiting Wildcats. Last week, Warren Central played host to Greenwood, and the Gators rolled to a 42-12 victory.
That’s a lotta Warren Central losses.
That’s a lotta Warren Central losses in a row.
It’s 52 and counting, 52 consecutive losses, and no doubt that streak has hurt player turnout as the Dragons try to get back in the win column. It’s the elephant in the room, the number they talk about in the stands, at the barber shop, the diner or the bar.
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS FOR WARREN CENTRAL
That could change tonight, of course, when Warren Central (0-2) opens its district schedule against Allen County-Scottsville (1-3). The Dragons are again playing at home, in the sparkling stadium with high-tech artificial turf covering Joe Hood Field.
It’s a pressure situation, sure. But Mark Nelson wants the Dragons to embrace it, because it’s an opportunity in front of them, because it’s a chance to experience a breakthrough he knows could lift a significant mental burden.
The pressure wouldn’t go away, of course, but it sure might make for a fine weekend for the Warren Central athletic family, the entire campus on Morgantown Road. The former players and coaches, the students, Nelson’s coaching staff, the sub-varsity players … shoot, just about everybody.
“I really don’t like talking about the past,” Nelson said. “I don’t like talking about the coaches who were here before me … The biggest thing for me … I’m not here to win games. I’m here to teach these young men to be good young men.
“There’s a lot of life lessons here. Football coaches are hired to win games. You have to build a program. When you do that, the winning will take care of itself.”
On the surface, that might seem a bit paradoxical. But it’s what Nelson and his team and his coaching staff have to deal with. Winning. Pressure. Adversity. Oftentimes, plenty of adversity. IMPOSING ADVERSITY.
Nelson said several Warren Central players would have to sit out the first quarter, against Allen County-Scottsville, because of a missed practice. The Dragons aren’t a particularly deep team, so this could be a major obstacle on the horizon.
“There’s really no good reason to miss a practice,” Nelson said. “When we played our first game, against Trigg County, we had 14 players out (under the COVID-19 protocol). We’ve got almost all of our kids back, for now.
“We’re going to start by building one block at a time. I can’t look at the schedule and say, ‘I can win that game,’ or ‘I can win this game.’ I want to win every game I coach. Every coach does.”
MARK NELSON IS NO STRANGER TO WINNING
Nelson had plenty of success as the head coach at South Warren, which was a new school when he came on for the 2010 season, as well as 10 seasons at the Greenwood helm. Nelson’s Greenwood squad went to the KHSAA Class 4A semifinals in 2009, and he went 24-13 with two regional final appearances in three years at South Warren.
Nelson has been an assistant coach at Portland High School, just past the state line in Tennessee, and he’s taken on perhaps the ultimate challenge for a high school coach.
Establish a culture. Pick up some confidence. Find a way to win.
The Dragons are about to get that chance.
“It would be GREAT to win a game, but there’s so many little things that go into that,” Nelson said. “But it would take all the pressure off these kids. We have some really talented kids, but they’re kids.”
Nelson is close with Allen County-Scottsville’s Brad Hood, the colorful coach who takes his Patriots squad into the district opener at Warren Central.
“Playing Warren Central is always a little different for me,” Hood said. “It’s a part of the Hood coaching tradition. My uncle Joe Hood’s name is on their field. As a child, I watched many a great football players from that sideline on the field that is now named for my uncle.
“Mark is a great friend of mine … I’ve known him my whole life! Being from a football family, growing up, football coaches were my heroes. Mark was one of those guys.
“Over the years I’ve spent many an hour at my Uncle Joe’s house, with Mark Nelson and some of the other coaches. Many other coaches. We talked about football. In Uncle Joe’s garage, we’d watch football, eat great food and occasionally talk football — pro, college, high school.
“Mark’s a great guy, an outstanding coach.”