WHITE PLAINS — The ceiling sign next to White Plains High School’s main office reads “Build it,” and a look downhill from the back of the school showed something building Wednesday.
Piedmont and Weaver were playing an elimination game in the area softball tournament, which White Plains was hosting by virtue of its regular-season title. The Wildcats were to play the winner under the lights.
Next door to the busy softball field, the baseball team was practicing for its third-round playoff series against defending Class 3A state champion Madison Academy. The Wildcats will host the best-of-3 series starting Friday, under the lights.
The track and football field were alive with track team members, fresh off their sectional title.
On the level beneath the gym, athletes of various sports were lifting in one of two weight rooms — one more weight room than the Wildcats had just two years ago.
Back in the office, Todd Chandler was giddily receiving news of victories by the school’s math teams. It’s fun for the second-year principal to ponder what is building all around him.
“I heard somebody say we had a culture of losing in everything except for basketball,” Chandler said. “I disagreed.”
Chandler presides over one of the area’s fastest-growing schools, and White Plains’ sports programs have started to feel the benefit of influx from surrounding areas.
Factor in home-run coaching hires in recent years and third-year football coach Heath Harmon’s impact on the strength program for all sports, and one sees potential for White Plains to become Calhoun County’s next Piedmont.
Time will tell whether White Plains match the general-sports surge that Piedmont enjoyed in the past three years, including state titles in football and wrestling, but the Wildcats’ rise from a “culture of losing” is underway.
The underpinning for that rise is solid.
White Plains has grown from one K-12 school to a high school, middle school and elementary school in eight years. The growth comes from families moving, drawn by the school’s reputation for strong academics and rural appeal.
As of Wednesday, the high school had 347 students after reaching a high of 375 this past summer. A class of 85 seniors, all having passed the graduate exam, will soon depart. A class of 117 freshmen is due in next fall.
Chandler’s daughter is among 123 in the sixth-grade class.
The growth in student population caused White Plains to bump up from Class 2A to 3A the year that Harmon arrived as football coach. He’s already looking ahead to the facilities' needs of a 5A program, one step ahead of the likely 4A jump on White Plains’ horizon.
Harmon said the football team has five or six transfers among the nearly 80 kids in grades 7-12 who have signed up. He sees the impact even more in the classroom.
“When I ask my English class, not just the football players, how many have been going to White Plains the whole time, not many of them raise their hand,” he said.
Greater numbers mean a greater talent pool. Softball coach Rachel Ford and baseball coach Chad Hudson preside over three-tiered programs — varsity, junior varsity and junior high.
Ford said the majority of her team has played for White Plains throughout her four years, but she had her pick of 50 girls that tried out for softball this year.
Perhaps no sport has felt a more immediate impact from influx than baseball. The list of top contributors that transferred from other schools includes Caed Turner (Donoho), Brock Wright (Saks), Zach Cunningham (Oxford) and Jonathan Bradshaw (Faith Christian).
The team also picked up Konner Amis, whose family moved from Mississippi when his dad became pastor at Parker Memorial Baptist Church.
If those names sound familiar from other sports, they should. Amis and Wright were the quarterback/running back battery that brought White Plains’ football team to a 5-5 finish in 2009 and within one victory of its first playoff berth since 1994.
All had their reasons for picking White Plains.
Wright said he wanted to follow Hudson, who left the same job at Class 4A Saks to become head coach for then-2A White Plains.
Amis, also a basketball player, initially chose White Plains because of boys’ basketball coach Chris Randall’s reputation. The Wildcats have won 198 games, made five regional appearances and advanced to one Final 48 in Randall’s nine years on the job.
Amis, who has branched out to football and baseball since arriving at White Plains, said he also likes that “it’s just a growing school, and just the area it’s in.”
Turner, sensing his chance to play baseball in college, said he wanted tougher competition than he would face at 1A Donoho. He also found what he said is a more dedicated program.
“I definitely thought that they had an established baseball team,” he said. “But, before I came, I didn’t know all the work they put in, like summer ball.
“I didn’t know anyone did summer ball, and I didn’t know that baseball players lifted weights. At Donoho, only football players lifted weights, and we didn’t think anything about baseball in the summer. Here, baseball is like a year-round thing, just like every other sport.”
Randall was blunt when asked what drew him to White Plains.
“I had applied at some other places and couldn’t get an interview,” he said. “I was just glad to get hired anywhere.”
Randall had just five years experience as a multi-sport coach and athletics director at Trinity Christian, but he turned out OK for White Plains. Little did anyone know that he was the first of several strong hires on a staff full of multi-sport coaches — some he helped to recruit.
Randall was the head baseball coach at the time he helped to lure Hudson.
Randall, who once demoted himself to promote Clint Smith as Trinity’s football coach, said he wanted better for White Plains’ baseball players.
“We didn’t have anyone on campus who could coach baseball, and I was the only one that had ever coached it before,” Randall said. “I knew we were going to be pretty good, and these guys who are making this run (this year) were seventh- and eighth-graders.”
Hudson was winning at Saks and had a strong group of underclassmen, but Randall “started putting the full-court press on him.”
“I was trying to get him excited about what we could build out here,” Randall said. “The youth programs were getting going. We had just started Dixie Youth with our little kids, so I was telling him about that. I was telling him what it’s like to come to school every day, the administration and faculty.”
Hudson asked why Randall hadn’t left. Randall described a hall full of yes-sir, no-sir kids. He said he wanted his daughter, now a fifth-grader, to graduate from White Plains.
That all resonated with Hudson, who was coming off of an area title with a sophomore-dominated team at Saks.
“I loved those kids, so it was a tough time to leave, as far as the players,” said Hudson, in his fourth year at White Plains. “But everything else was easy, everything else about being out here for the long term.”
Hudson has four children, two of school age and two younger.
“I wanted somewhere where I could stay, and, to me, White Plains was all of those things,” he said. “It’s a high-achieving academic school, and I wanted to go to a place where I was comfortable teaching, where I was comfortable with my kids going to school and I felt like we could win.”
White Plains also lured the former Rachel Countryman, who starred at Jacksonville State and played softball professionally.
Then came Harmon, who had family reasons for wanting back in the area. He had left after a successful run at Munford and went 11-2 in his first year at Andalusia, but the Harmons were four hours away from his mother-in-law.
Harmon won over his soon-to-be bosses and colleagues with a plan to literally lift up the entire athletics program.
Harmon could do enthusiastic infomercials for the improved facilities around White Plains’ campus, starting with the weight rooms.
His plan involved converting a storage room, which meant he had to find space-economical ways to store equipment in a smaller space next door. Doing so opened a large enough space for seven rack stations, each with wood flooring and “WP” painted in blue letters.
Then the middle school opened, which opened what had been a nearby classroom. The space became a second weight room with six rack stations.
White Plains went from having capacity for 25 kids to lift at one time to having capacity for 55, which helps Harmon to oversee weight programs for all sports, boys and girls.
The two rooms also gave Harmon a motivational tool. The second room, which is air-conditioned, is used by the top 18 strongest athletes in terms of total weight in the bench press, squat and power clean.
It’s all helped Harmon to achieve results across the board.
“The top lifter two years ago wouldn’t be in the top 18 now,” he said.
Harmon has some in the 1,000-pound club and several in a tier just below that, a marked improvement from when he took over the program.
Wright is a poster child, having improved nearly 500 total pounds to 1,015. That roughly equals his rushing yardage during football season.
“We get after it,” Wright said. “The weight program we do is just really good. You don’t get time to rest. You’re always working.”
Harmon is already thinking ahead to more improvements. He said the idea is to have facilities competitive with schools one classification ahead. That way, White Plains can compete with schools that move down to their classification.
“We played teams this past year that had just moved down from 4A, and we’re just up to 3A,” he said. “They didn’t change facilities. They just have a few less kids.
“If we’re looking to bump to 4A, we’d better have 5A facilities.”
That’s building it, indeed.
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 235-3576 or email@example.com.