On NFL draft day this year, Perry Riley anxiously awaited news. It was stressful. For once, the LSU standout’s future was out of his hands, entrusted to an agent averse in the high-stakes negotiation of a pressure cooker atmosphere.
Riley needed solitude–comfortable, familiar surroundings reminding him of control. At Stephenson High School, the gym, where he spent the life-changing day, was that place. Like other former outstanding teammates, Riley enjoyed seeing the Jaguars continue a tradition of fast, powerful defense and helped out whenever he could.
At the same time, Jermaine Cunningham, Riley’s varsity teammate at Stephenson, had the same knots in his stomach. Eventually the Redskins came in for Riley and Cunningham went to New England.
Two high school teammates drafted in the NFL – the odds of it are incredible. However, the program known for developing outstanding defensive talent could add another two alumni to its ranks.
College seniors Marcus Ball, once one of the nation’s most coveted linebackers, and Kelvin Sheppard, another LSU product, are well on the way to professional success believes the man who first oversaw their raw, talent.
“They fall along the same path,” said longstanding Stephenson coach Ron Gartrell. “They’ll be drafted.”
Gartrell, however, doesn’t have the demeanor of a man with nostalgic longing–and for good reason. Sheppard’s brother, Jeremy, and Ball’s cousin, Reggis, are among the program’s current torch bearers putting up head-turning numbers.
Along with leading tackler Jordan Mincy, Stephenson has one of the most feared defenses in the state. Through the first four games Mincy and Ball were tied for the team lead with 36 total tackles.
Stephenson (5-0) is coming off its second straight shutout of the season, a 21-0 win against Luella on Oct. 1.
“This crop is no different than the rest,” said Gartrell. “We’ve always kept good linebackers.”
The coach cites several reasons for the seamless continuation of defensive standouts through the years.
“Other programs have more sophisticated passing games,” he said, comparing the Stephenson approach to others. “We’re a traditional come-at-you type team. We put a lot of emphasis on defense and go by the saying that you can’t win without playing defense.”
His players also maintain a strong work ethic.
“I think we execute [better than other teams] because we do a lot to prepare for the game,” said Mincy, expected to sign with an NCAA Division I program this year. “By the time the game comes we’re ready.”
Mincy is constantly reminded of Stephenson’s reputation, particularly when former players like Riley and Cunningham visit.
“A lot of [former players] come back, help out, and that’s a real good thing,” he said.
Setting high expectations through example is, said Gartrell, an important x-factor in the program’s culture of success, especially for the wave of family members.
Reggie Ball was a starting quarterback for Georgia Tech and younger brother Marcus went to Florida State before transferring to Memphis. Their cousin, Reggis, is also expected to follow the Division I path.
Both Reggis Ball and Mincy have scholarship offers from Memphis.
“When you see them hanging around the program, they get an idea of the expectations [of our program],” said Gartrell. “They all come from football families, and that’s something unique. They all have the natural aggression and instincts for football.”
It’s been Gartrell’s job to recognize, hone and encourage this talent to a higher level. “A lot of those guys from Division I and the NFL started out with us appointing them a position,” he said. “You really like to see them come through.”