Mark Mariakis jokes about how he sometimes pretends his first two years as the head football coach at Ridgeland High School never happened.
But then his serious answers kick in — and he’s completely serious when he calls his loss-filled first season a fun one.
Ridgeland is one of the 35 schools competing this weekend in The Daily Citizen’s Southeastern 7-on-7 Championship, and the Panthers are one of five programs who also have a “B” team in the 40-team field. The event, sponsored by AstroTurf, started with pool play on Saturday and will conclude with double-elimination bracket play today.
Mariakis is 65-38 in seasons with the Panthers and coming off the program’s best season, which ended with a trip to the Georgia High School Association’s Class 4A state championship game at the Georgia Dome in December. Despite losing 45-10 to Sandy Creek, it was still a milestone year for Ridgeland.
“I always said I never wanted to build a great season,” Mariakis said. “I wanted to build a great program that can weather the down years.”
But it wasn’t always easy breezy in Mariakis’ kingdom.
In his first season, 2004, the Panthers went 1-9. They followed that with a 3-7 mark. When asked about his time at Ridgeland, he said while laughing that he “sometimes forgets about the first two years.”
It’s a joke. Those years matter a lot to him.
“I tell people all the time, that first year was 1-9 and it was as fun a year as we’ve had here,” Mariakis said. “Even though we lost, we were in ballgames. You could see the kids’ confidence start to grow. It was that first block in the wall we were building.
“(After the 3-7 year), I told that senior group, ‘Y’all have laid a foundation for something special to happen.’ From that year on, the worst year we’ve had is seven wins.”
Now the current players are continuing the success — from highly touted recruit Vonn Bell, a senior last season who signed with Ohio State, to current senior linebacker Ian Hayes.
“Now that we got the taste of (a state title game), we know what it takes to get there,” Hayes said, noting one of Mariakis’ best attributes is his relationship to the players.
“He also welcomes us in. He’s really family and like a father to us.”
How did Mariakis do it? What is the uber-special secret he knows to turn a program from more losing seasons than winning — the Panthers, who started playing in 1989, had just two campaigns better than .500 before Mariakis took over — to a state title contender?
“I don’t think there’s really any secret,” Mariakis said. “The first thing they allowed us to do is get our kids in the weight room. I said, ‘If we can’t get them in the weight room during the school year, then we won’t have a chance.’”
The school upgraded the weight room facilities and added a weight training class during the school day. Next was bringing in the right assistant coaches to supplement Mariakis. Finally, he needed athletes.
“Any coach would be stupid to think you can outcoach somebody,” he said. “You have to have athletes who can make plays.”
Mariakis is thankful his supervisors gave him time to build the program.
“So many people want wins (right away),” he said. “‘If the coach doesn’t win in the first or second year, then get rid of him.’ I tell you, that mentality means those people think all teams are equal and the only variable is the coach. How ridiculous is that? When I see these programs with this coaching turnover every year, you’re creating that inconsistency.”