May 1, 2014

The Tigers' time: Dempsey leads Morris to success

Morris Innovative High School’s boys soccer team has two players on its roster who had never dribbled, passed or shot a soccer ball before this season.

In fact, Russell Burse and Justin Scott had not even put on shin guards or cleats, much less imagined themselves being relevant to their high school’s soccer success.

As the Tigers practiced earlier this week in preparation for their first-ever state tournament match and coach Ernie Dempsey told the story of what should have been Burse’s second career goal — it was rejected by the extreme effort of a Chattooga goalkeeper — Dempsey watched the other rookie, Scott, rifle a shot from 20 yards away and into the top corner of the net.

“Did you see that?” he excitedly asked.

After shouting approval toward the sophomore defender, Dempsey received a wink and a thumbs up from Scott that made the coach smile.

“Like you’ve been doing it for 15 years,” Dempsey shouted.

At Morris Innovative, it has been a wink-and-thumbs-up kind of season, and Dempsey has been the architect behind building another potential boys high school soccer powerhouse for the area. The No. 4 seed from Region 7-2A, Morris Innovative (11-5) travels to face Region 8-2A champion Bremen (12-3-2) in a 6 p.m. match today in the opening round of the Class 2A state tournament.

The Tigers are one of seven teams in Murray or Whitfield counties who qualified for one of the Georgia High School Association’s boys soccer state tournaments this season. They’re joined by Murray County in 2A, Coahulla Creek and North Murray in 3A and Dalton, Northwest Whitfield and Southeast Whitfield in 4A.

“These guys are such a great unit,” said Dempsey, who has been the program’s only coach since Morris Innovative — the Dalton Public Schools institution opened in 2009 — began varsity boys soccer in 2012.

“They have fun together. That’s the biggest difference between this team and any in the past. They play well together. The chemistry with all of them is really good. I tell them before every game the three things to focus on are maintaining your focus and concentration, always hustle back and help out on defense and have as much fun as possible out there. If you’re playing a beautiful game with each other, passing and moving around, you’re going to have one heck of a good time.”

Morris Innovative clinched a spot in the state tournament weeks ago. The Tigers contended for a state berth in 2013, when they were 8-9, but this year represents a big turnaround from their inaugural season, when they went 1-12, winning their final match to avoid a winless campaign.

“A lot of games, we didn’t even have two subs,” Dempsey said in reference to that first season. “We had a lot of games with just 11 guys. We played a match against North Murray with just 10 guys.

“This year, we have depth. We have more players. Even though some of them haven’t played soccer before, if you give me athletes, I’ll teach them the sport and how to play the right way.”

Dempsey is from Collegedale, Tenn., and grew up playing pick-up soccer. He said soccer was the first sport his father taught him, because, as his dad said, “If you can play this game with your feet, any game with your hands will be easy.”

Dempsey attended Southern Adventist University, where he played intramural sports, and then assisted his father as the college’s men’s basketball coach. It’s in that role he learned more of the tactical side of sports — defense, spacing, and other team-oriented principles that translate from basketball to soccer, and vice versa.

He later became Dalton High School’s varsity girls soccer assistant coach and the program’s junior varsity head coach. He held those positions through the 2010-2011 school year, after which he was asked to take command of the new program at Morris Innovative. Dempsey accepted the challenge and already had in his mind the type of team he wanted — one that understood how to play the game and didn’t need hand-holding.

“I got the desire to want that system when I was coaching at Dalton and our varsity girls were playing North Hall,” he said. “I looked at their coach — I stood the whole time — and he just sat there with his legs crossed and had sunglasses on. Every once in a while, he’d say something and the girls would do it. I decided then whenever I got a head-coaching gig, I’d have a system in place where I could say something every once in a while, but for the most part it just took care of itself.

“The thing people don’t understand about Morris kids is you can trust them to do anything. Give them the freedom, and they’ll run with it.”

His greatest accomplishment may be turning unpolished athletes like Burse and Scott into viable soccer players.

Burse, a senior, was a freshman at Dalton High before coming to Morris Innovative his sophomore year. Scott moved from the Atlanta area his junior year. Both were starters for Morris Innovative’s boys basketball team, which competed its first varsity season this school year.

“I talked to a couple of our guys who also are on the basketball team,” Dempsey recalled, “and said, ‘Who are your athletes?’ They said Russell and one other guy. Justin was new to the school. I said to him, ‘Do you play any sports?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I play basketball.’ I said, ‘OK, cool. You’re an athlete. You’re going to play soccer.’”

Dempsey wanted them for soccer even though their playing experience was zero.

“It was crazy,” Burse said of his first practice with the team. “I couldn’t even kick the ball straight. I don’t get discouraged, though. I like trying new stuff. That’s why I started playing.”

Like a metaphor of the program’s rise, Dempsey taught new recruits like Burse and Scott the sport. He needed only one thing: commitment.

“It starts with the kid,” he said. “The kids I mentioned who never played before have never missed a day of practice. If they’ll be here and put in the time and work, the drills will take care of the rest.”

Morris Innovative’s team is made up of Michael Jordans. No, not in the sense they’re considered by many to be the greatest at the sport, like the NBA legend. But like Jordan, who was infamously cut from the varsity roster early in his high school career, they were all overlooked. Playing at Dalton Middle School, some made a second home of the bench, rarely receiving playing time. Others, like Elmer Hernandez, were flat-out cut.

“I never made it,” the sophomore said.

Hernandez set the Morris Innovative single-season scoring record with 10 goals this season, so he’s anything but a bad soccer player.

“How did that slip through the cracks?,” Dempsey asked.

The fact is, Dalton High School — which won last year’s Class 4A state title and hasn’t lost in 40 straight matches — had an abundance of soccer talent.

“Morris has given an opportunity to many kids who wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play at Dalton High School,” Dempsey said. “The beauty of our school is I’m not cherrypicking their talent. I’m recruiting the kids who got cut or didn’t get playing time.

“I bring in kids who got cut in middle school, the kids who don’t get as much playing time. Those are the kids who care enough to try out and play but aren’t getting what they want out of it.”

Burse and Scott are benefiting plenty from soccer already. When Dempsey talks about Burse, he notices his ability to move without the ball and take fundamentally sound strikes on goal. He talks about Scott as a defender who understands how to guard and also has a “ridiculously strong leg” that just needed proper mechanics.

“It’s just the basic stuff,” Scott said. “I’m a great listener.”

Both he and Burse admitted the Tigers’ success this season is probably surprising to those outside the team. They even admitted finding such important roles in their first seasons a bit of a shocker.

“For us as players and athletes at the school, I think it’s something we’ve been waiting for,” Burse said. “We try hard in every sport. We aren’t like every other school. We don’t have tons of kids overflowing to come play for us.

“Now we have the chance to do something.”

Dempsey wants players like Burse and Scott, who are OK trying something new and willing to put in the effort. He wants players like Hernandez who was passed over because there was more supply than demand. He wants this Morris Innovative team, which gives a wink and thumbs-up while having fun with the chance it otherwise wouldn’t have.

“At Morris ... we take the risk-takers, the kids who will do whatever it takes to succeed,” Dempsey said.

“That contradicts what people say, but I see it every day.”

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