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Building blocks: Veterans builds athletic power in three years

KATHLEEN — David Bruce stood on the sidelines of some rather significant football games as an assistant coach at Warner Robins and Westside high schools.

His time as a defensive coaching specialist helped lead Warner Robins and Westside to multiple trips to the Georgia Dome for state semifinal games, and he was the defensive coordinator on the Demons’ 2004 state championship team.

That football résumé certainly appealed to Lionel Brown in late 2010.

Brown, who served on the same coaching staff with Bruce at Warner Robins in the early 1990s, wanted a disciplined, successful and driven football coach to start the new athletics program at Veterans High School.

“Dave always impressed me because of his fire and passion,” said Brown, who became the first principal at Veterans in October 2009. “He has high demands, high expectations, consistency and follow through.”

But while Bruce’s football acumen earned a check in the list of positives, Brown was interested in another aspect of his background.

Bruce joined longtime Warner Robins football coach Robert Davis in Macon when Westside opened and played an important role in the construction of an athletics program from scratch.

“Coach Davis gave me a lot of responsibility, and I got to see how a program was built,” Bruce said. “When a chance like this came around, I tried to say everything I could to convince (Brown) that I was the guy for the job.”

The experience at Westside has paid off.

In a little more than three years, Veterans has become the most successful public school athletics program in Middle Georgia with playoff appearances and region championships in nearly every sport.

“I believed we would get there, just maybe not this fast,” Brown said. “I think the best is yet to come.”

Construction of a program

The school board approved Bruce as football head coach and athletics director in January 2010, and Brown felt like he found the perfect fit.

With a Marine background, Bruce’s fiery personality would play well on the football field, and his military background would mesh well in a community driven by Robins Air Force Base. But Bruce also had to make sure Brown knew his program building with Davis and time spent learning the organizational skills required for an administrative job with Warner Robins athletics director Bryan Way were just as impressive.

“At Warner Robins, I just had to coach the defense in football,” Bruce said. “I didn’t have to learn other stuff. But I knew what it was going to take to be successful as an (athletics director). And I worked hard to get ready for when we opened. But I also wanted to make sure I had the right people around me.”

Bruce surrounded himself with familiar faces. He brought Steve Ruzic and Scott Lamb with him from Warner Robins to coach football as well as track and field (Ruzic) and golf (Lamb). Mitch Horton came from Northside to take over the softball program, and Bruce hired Greg Nix from Houston County to coach boys basketball. Bruce also found some promising young coaches like David Coffey, a then-29-year-old middle school baseball coach; a former college basketball player who coached in three different states in Nicole Miranda; and a young boys soccer coach named Matt Roth.

“I’d never met (Bruce) before I interviewed,” Coffey said. “He took a chance on me and some others, and I think all of us wanted to prove he made the right decision.”

With a staff in place, Bruce and his coaches had to find a way to bring together athletes from different backgrounds. Veterans opened in 2010 with students from Houston County, Perry and Warner Robins. Warner Robins lost 35 football players and most of its freshman baseball team to Veterans. The new school gained a number of talented spring sports athletes from Houston County.

Bruce forced players from Houston County and Warner Robins to room together when they went to football camp. Coffey noticed his baseball players found common ground through their youth baseball experiences.

“You had kids who grew up wanting to be (Houston County) Bears or (Warner Robins) Demons or Perry (Panthers),” Coffey said. “Now, they’re all here, and you have to get them to buy into what we’re teaching. The biggest thing is trying to get guys to believe in what you’re telling them.”

Some of those walls started to break down quickly; even if students were zoned for different high schools, many of them played together in youth sports like Warner Robins Little League. Although Veterans would pull some students from Huntington and Perry middle schools, the bulk of incoming freshmen would come from Bonaire Middle, so getting the new students to mesh was a quick fix that only needed to hold for three years until the first full class began its senior year in 2013.

With the school set to open in August 2010, Bruce knew his staff had the ship pointed in the right direction.

Winning begins

The football program didn’t get off to the best start — the Warhawks lost their first four games by a combined score of 172-24 — but Veterans found some early success in other sports.

The volleyball team became the first to make it to the playoffs, and the cross country programs finished in the top 25 at the state meet.

Both golf teams earned top 10 finishes at the state tournament, and the boys soccer team made it to the GHSA Class AAA quarterfinals despite finishing fourth in its own region.

The athletics program had a respectable first year, finishing fifth in the nine-team Region 2-AAA and 29th in its overall classification in the Georgia Athletics Director Association Director’s Cup standings, which determine the top athletics programs based on points awarded for playoff achievements in each sport.

The Warhawks sports teams took a huge collective leap in year two.

“Nothing is rushed; you have a full cycle with the kids,” Bruce said. “More time and more teaching, and I think you start to see results.”

The volleyball and softball programs advanced to the state quarterfinals within a few days of each other in October 2011 — like the boys soccer team, the softball team fought from a No. 4 seed to make it to the quarterfinals.

In the spring of 2012, the baseball, boys soccer and girls soccer teams all won region championships — the first team region titles in school history — and made it to the second round of the playoffs. The girls golf team finished fourth overall in the state, marking the school’s best finish yet.

The Warhawks went from fifth in the region in the GADA standings to first, winning Bruce his first of two athletics director of the year awards. They also jumped from 29th in the state to eighth overall. No other Middle Georgia public school in any classification finished higher than ninth.

“All of this starts at the top with Coach Bruce and Dr. Brown,” Miranda said. “We have a lot of pride and desire, and excellence is our standard, not a goal.”

The Warhawks jumped up a classification in 2012, but the trajectory stayed the same. They finished the year with a state quarterfinals appearance for baseball and volleyball, and the girls golf team repeated with a fourth-place finish. The girls soccer program became the first Veterans team to advance to a state semifinals.

Veterans locked down its first state championship when the girls cheerleading team won the Class AAAA title, and Malik Broughton became the first individual state champion when he won the boys high jump at the state track and field meet.

The Warhawks jumped up two more spots to sixth in the GADA standings following the 2012-13 school year.

The girls athletics program is already one of the best ones in the state. It finished fourth in Class AAAA in the GADA standings in 2012-13, behind Columbus, Carrollton and private school powerhouse Marist.

But despite the school’s near top-to-bottom athletics success, the school’s most prominent sport had yet to join the winning ways.

Football comes around

Bruce often joked he was the biggest problem with the Veterans athletics program because he couldn’t get the football team to take the next step.

The Warhawks struggled to win important games for the first three seasons and lost 21 of their first 30 games heading into the 2013 season.

This season didn’t get off to a promising start either.

The Warhawks lost their first three games, albeit to powers Warner Robins, Northside and 2012 semifinalist Harris County.

Bruce stayed positive and told his players they could still be headed for a playoff run because few teams in the state had weathered an early season schedule as tough as the one the Warhawks faced.

Veterans got out to an early lead in the fourth game against the ninth-ranked Westside Seminoles. The advantage was extinguished, however, when Westside blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown in the final seconds of the first half.

“In the past, we’d be done,” Bruce said. “But our guys were battle-tested from the first three weeks. They didn’t fold. They were hit with some adversity and, for the first time, we won a big game like that.”

The winning hasn’t stopped.

Veterans has five consecutive victories and clinched the first playoff spot in program history with a win over West Laurens this past Friday. The Warhawks will play Mary Persons on Friday in Forsyth for the Region 2-AAAA championship.

“You feel the electricity in the air at school,” Brown said. “The swag level — as they say — or rather the confidence level is a whole lot higher now. You can tell the difference.”

Bruce coached in a number of Northside-Warner Robins rivalry games and scores of playoff games as an assistant coach. He knows the feel of a big-game atmosphere even though his players don’t.

They’ll get that taste Friday against Mary Persons in the biggest football game in school history.

“We’ve come so far since we first got here, even though it has been a short time,” Bruce said. “We’ve had some success in a lot of sports, and now the football program has gotten to the point where we hoped we would be before the season. But this is year four. We’re not going to change anything we do. We think the blueprint is already there, we’re just going to keep following those plans, and hopefully, there is a lot more success ahead of us.”

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