J.R. Tucker football coach Phillip Sims isn’t sure there’s a single player on his team who has played a true home game. He hopes by the time they do, that the Tigers will be a revitalized force on the gridiron.
The Tigers have taken the first steps in that process this season. They’re off to a 2-0 start after going 1-24 in their last three seasons combined - this includes an 0-5 mark in Sims’ first season as coach in the spring and a 14-game losing streak leading up to this fall’s opener against Caroline.
COVID wiped out the time that Sims and his staff needed to introduce their vision for the team, so the five-game spring slate was mainly treated as a time to grow.
“The spring was truly an offseason for us. That was our time to install our program, how we do things, how we practice, how we play,” Sims said. “I’m not saying we weren’t aiming to come out and compete, but we also understood what we were, as far as getting the program together and putting it together. … And now, we’re starting to see some of the dividends.”
After a “somewhat normal” offseason this time around, the Tigers are looking far more competitive. They blanked Caroline 20-0 - scoring more points than they did throughout all of the spring - and then taking down Meadowbrook 20-6. Tucker plays Deep Run (0-3) Friday night, and a victory would give the Tigers their first 3-0 start since 1992.
Sims credited a group of upperclassmen - senior Noah Hartsoe, senior Cameron Davis and junior Grayson Starrett - for establishing the culture and identity the team needed. Most notably, the emphasis on effort and physical toughness that Sims has preached to them.
“I think the guys who took the bull by the horns in the spring are the same guys leading us now. They bought into the program, bought into what we’re trying to teach,” Sims said. “They want to be known as the group that kinda turned this thing around.”
J.R. Tucker has been undergoing significant construction at the school's campus, forcing the Tigers to play their home games on the road. They defeated the Monarchs last week at Douglas Freeman’s field.
Neither the rebuilding process nor the nomadic nature of the team are new for Sims, who experienced both at John Marshall. The Justices, who were also forced to travel for home games, won 11 games in two years under Sims after winning just two total in the two years before he arrived.
“For me, as a player, I always liked away games better anyway,” said Sims, who played QB at Alabama, UVA and Winston-Salem State before practice squad stints in the NFL. “I liked the us against the world feeling. … [We] understand that it doesn’t matter where the game is played at, the game still has to be played. Nobody cares if you’re home or away, the answer is always at the end of the game, did you win or did you lose?”
The construction at Tucker is expected to be done over the next year, and Sims expects his team to have a stadium to play in next fall.
Sims is happy with the results so far, but he’s still waiting for his team to play a “complete” game and says they have a long way to go. His long-term expectation isn’t simply competence, it’s fielding a team that a community can rally around.
“[Fans] will come once for the stadium, but after that, they are coming to see you play,” Sims said. “This is the build-up. This is us building this program back up to a point where not only is it competitive, it’s one of the recognizable names not only in the area but the state. That’s always our goal, to be a championship contender. …
“Now we gotta keep scratching until we get there.”