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Steve Pennington gets one more shot to go out on top

Behind Fred Shaver Field in Brooklet sit the open practice fields of Southeast Bulloch High School, no longer vacant now that the Yellow Jackets are less than three weeks away from their opener against Richmond Hill.
    For eight years a booming drawl could be heard from those fields coming from a man donning a mesh, white baseball cap which simply read “SEB” in Times New Roman text. That man was Pat Collins, who left his post in May to take the athletic director job at Bulloch Academy just three days removed from SEB’s spring game against Portal.
    It was an awkward spot for SEB to be in. Not only was the team out Josh Moree, the previous offensive coordinator, but now they’d be without the man who directed the entire football operation for nearly a decade. For most schools, a head coach leaving at the stroke of summer would have been a nightmare.
    For starters, trying to gather candidates and recruit potential coaches is a headache in itself. Then there’s the issue of pulling a potential candidate out of a contract, not to mention the hassle of making room for the potential head coach’s preferred assistants. But for SEB, this wasn’t going to be an issue — for now at least.
    It wasn’t but a couple of months prior SEB had brought on former Statesboro head coach Steve Pennington to run their defense while he was “retired”. Being he was the only coach on SEB’s current staff with head coaching experience, it wasn’t a hard decision for then-principal Donna Clifton and then-AD Jack Webb to slap the interim tag on Pennington for the 2016 season.
    “I was expecting to be right over there,” Pennington said as he sat in the now vacant head coach's office, pointing to the wall at his right where the coaches meeting room is. “Drawing up some defensive schemes and working them out.”
    Not in his wildest dreams did Pennington think he’d have another shot at head coaching, even if at first he didn’t have any interest in doing so. Pennington is a defensive coordinator at heart — it was his devastating defenses at Statesboro which helped land him the head coaching job there in 2004.
    Pennington will admit he was looking forward to getting back to his roots, but being a man of strong faith he always looks towards a higher power for answers to the tough decisions in life. Safe to say, this was one of those decisions.
    “Somebody better than we are knows what’s going on,” Pennington said. “You just have to trust that somebody has your best interests at heart. And I know he does.”
    At the time Collins’ cited the change was for the betterment of his family and going across the county would be a way for him to retire quicker. Considering Collins’ had been teaching and coaching for well over 25 years, in hindsight it wasn’t that much of a surprise that’d he would move on. But for his players and his staff, the move still came as a shock — Pennington included.
    “I always like to say the only person who likes change is a wet baby,” Pennington said. “In the process of change through the wisdom I’ve gained through coaching at four different schools, I knew I could help with the transition process.”
    According to Pennington, getting the players to focus back to the grind wasn’t a problem. Collins’ had always preached the importance of the weight room at SEB and it shows with three GACA weightlifting titles. The work ethic had already been instilled and continued to move on even without the presence of Collins.
    Pennington had seen it first hand when he came on as the DC in February. He saw how hard the SEB players worked and it was then he had some peace of mind the team would be just fine.
    “I knew the ship was already sailing, we just have to keep it afloat and moving in the right direction,” Pennington said. “We wound up having a pretty good summer because of it.”
    Pennington was also quick to complement the parents of the players who were dedicated to making sure every young man was at every practice and conditioning session. For those who live in the city of Statesboro, it’s hard to imagine how far Bulloch County actually reaches on the southeast side.
    There’s a solid 180 mile area in the southern part of Bulloch County which caters to SEB’s student populous. Some players have to drive up to 30 minutes one way just to get to practice. That in itself is one of the things that gets Pennington motivated to pour in everything he was to his one year stint as the interim coach.
    “That’s the kind of passion that made me feel like this program was going to be okay,” Pennington said. “The commitment and passion around this community in Brooklet.”
    Pennington isn’t so much apprehensive anymore as much as he is motivated to make sure SEB is back in the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five seasons. Now when you go out to those practice fields, it isn't the booming echoes of Collins you hear anymore. The raspy call of Pennington can be heard instead, normally seen coaching the defensive side of the ball where his heart has always been.
    So even if the sight of seeing Pennington on the sidelines is jarring at Fred Shaver Field when SEB takes the field at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 25, he’ll let you know he’s there for a reason.
    “I know I’ve been put here for a reason, probably the same reason I was brought to coach in the first place,” Pennington said. “After being here for a couple of months, I know we’ll be okay.”
Pennington has one more shot to not only go out a winner in 2017, but he has a chance to secure his 200th career win which had eluded him for his final three years in Statesboro.
    So perhaps in a way he’s right — everything does happen for a reason.