Tony Hull and his Warren Easton football team had to hear it from the naysayers all summer long.
Well, actually it started way before then, in December when the Eagles left the Superdome with the runner-up Class 4A trophy that now sits in an upstairs trophy case at the school.
“They blew their one chance to win state,” some said.
“All their good players are gone now, so they are going to be down this year,” others said.
They heard it from players at rival schools. They read it in newspapers and on the Internet.
And even heard it from classmates and teachers at their school.
Everywhere they turned, they heard it.
“They took that as a slap in the face,” Hull said.
Eight games into the season and Easton has proved they were not just some one-hit wonder.
They’ve won seven games (their lone loss was to Evangel Christian) and climbed to No. 4 in The New Orleans Advocate’s Large School Super 10 this week.
While most thought the cupboard was bare on Canal Street with the departure of star players like quarterback Deshawn Capers-Smith (last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year) and receiver Tyron Johnson, Hull knew better.
“There is a serious misconception, almost a fallacy out there, that teams in the city of New Orleans can only win with talent,” Hull said. “I think that’s a lazy misconception. It’s a slap in the face of the building process we have here at Warren Easton. The kids know it.
“We have a process. For us, it’s not about having just one good team every four or five years. It’s about building a program that competes year in and year out. The kids that put in work behind those guys we had last year took all the talk as disrespect.”
There were plenty pieces to replace. In addition to Capers-Smith (now at Texas A&M) and Johnson (now at LSU), there were nine other Division I players who had to be replaced.
Nobody had bigger shoes to fill than Tyriek Starks, the senior quarterback left with the daunting task of replacing Capers-Smith’s size 11 cleats. Capers-Smith accounted for a mind-boggling 4,333 passing yards, 1,318 rushing yards and accounted for 71 touchdowns.
“It was a lot of pressure, but with the guys I have around me, they make it easy,” Starks said. “I knew I could handle it.”
And yes, he heard the doubters too.
“It’s why we play with a chip on our shoulders,” he said.
Starks talks to Capers-Smith two or three times a week. It motivates him, he said.
He has helped the Eagles offense average 41 points per game.
“Tyriek Starks is definitely not Deshawn Capers-Smith,” Hull said. “However, he’s Tyriek Starks. And that doesn’t mean he can’t be a really good football player.”
And he has been just that.
Fortunately for Starks, he doesn’t have to carry the team on one shoulder while the chip is on the other.
The defense has been just as good, giving up just 11.8 points per game, second best among all local teams. Not bad for a unit that often gets overshadowed by a prolific offense that scored 70 points in a game this season.
“That’s the one thing that’s been different,” Hull said. “In the past, we could just outscore people. Our defensive coordinator Jerry Phillips and his staff has put in a great system, and they have forced turnovers and created opportunities for our offense to touch the ball.”
Linebacker Pernell Jefferson, an Oklahoma commitment, is one of the defensive leaders.
He too, admits the doubters made this team hungry.
“Yeah we lost all a lot of talent, but we were determined to show everybody that we still had people here that could get the job done,” Jefferson said.
But for all they’ve done, there’s still something the Eagles have yet to do since Hull took over the program in 2007: beat Edna Karr.
Easton gets another shot Thursday at Pan American Stadium.
“Thursday is a big test for us,” said Hull, 0-6 against Karr. “It’s a monkey we have to shake off our back.”
A victory will essentially give the Eagles the outright District 9-4A title after sharing the crown with Karr and Landry-Walker last season.
Then they can focus on the other title, the Class 4A state title that they came oh-so-close to getting last year before falling 28-27 to Neville.
Jefferson got a reminder of that loss when he bumped into former Neville standout Kavontae Turpin (now at TCU). Turpin was sporting his championship ring.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” Jefferson said.
To Hull, that loss was part of the process.
“My whole life, my dad taught me that life teaches you lessons,” Hull said. “Either we’re going to learn from it, or we could just put it to aside. That one-point loss was a life lesson. We used it as something we could build upon instead of something we should just forget about.”
So don’t write off a possible return trip to the Dome just yet for the Eagles.
“I don’t think we have reached our potential yet this year,” Hull said.
“We still have some things to work on. However, we’re close.”
Much closer than most people thought they would be.