Editor's note: The 20th and final story in a series previewing area high school football programs.
WHITE PLAINS — Not long after taking the White Plains job, Larry Strain learned that he had a good problem … too many players, not enough jerseys.
The 41 blue jerseys and 48 white jerseys didn’t cover the 58 players coming out for the team. Strain was hired in spring, which was too late to order more from the usual manufacturer, so Strain went to another manufacturer and got the Wildcats something basic.
Let’s just say the road jerseys are, well, white plains.
But there’s no old-school statement from the coach who took Woodland to 10 straight playoff berths and two state-runner-up finishes. It’s called just getting through that first year.
“Right now, we’re just trying to get our feet on the ground and turn the corner and start going in the right direction,” Strain said.
Strain hopes the participation increase means the start of something good at White Plains, a program that stands 20 years removed from its lone playoff berth.
History says the challenge will be staggering. The Wildcats have just nine winning seasons in 42 years of football. Their most successful coach, Ed Cleveland, posted seven of those but still finished his time in blue and white with an 84-96-1 record.
This year’s reclassification makes the challenge tougher. White Plains moved up one class to 4A and into a region that includes Saks, Cleburne County and Jacksonville.
Also, Strain estimates that 80 percent of the 2013 roster that saw playing time is gone, and projected starting center Calvin Thornburg sustained a season-robbing knee injury in the spring game.
“At one point, I looked on the field in the spring jamboree, and we’re trying to win a ballgame, and I had two kids that had ever been in a varsity football game,” Strain said. “I had four kids that had never played football.
“Four other kids on the field were all still fixing to graduate eighth grade in the middle school, and all four of those kids were my skill-position kids — quarterback, tailback, fullback and my ‘Z’ (receiver).”
But getting players out is step one. White Plains watchers have long seen success in lower level football, only to see it not translate to the varsity high school level.
Strain succeeded at Woodland with rosters typically in the 40s, but Woodland is a 2A school. Then again, White Plains was a 2A school not so long ago, before a growth boom.
Getting more numbers out now “has to do with our kids are beginning to buy in,” Strain said. “The problem that we’ve had here in the past, my understanding, is not getting kids to play.
Strain, his staff and returning players beat the halls, trying to get players out. It took some talking.
“In the past here, football has not been successful,” Strain said. “They had the idea of, ‘Why should I go out there and get my brains beat in? I’m going to concentrate on being a basketball player of a baseball player.’”
Through recruiting the hallways and weight-room enhancements, Strain and staff got 60 players out for spring practice. They retained 58 at the start of preseason camp.
“My best friend, Nathan Gilbert, he’s probably the best players on the basketball team,” senior receiver/running back Dillon Greenwood said. “He’s playing football now, and he’s really good. It’s the first year he’s played.
“We have two more guys that are playing offensive line, another kid that moved in, and I have another friend that played baseball and never played (football), and he’s playing now. He’s one of our best athletes.
“It helps us all around, because, it’s more competition.”
Greenwood will be a key figure as White Plains transitions from power to spread offense. He brings precious experience, as do fullback/linebacker Caleb Turner and H-back Ryan Hanson.
Gilbert will play wide receiver, and freshman quarterback Drew Hudson will trigger the offense.
Strain said the goal is to make the playoffs.
“Now, is that attainable this season? Who really knows?” he said. “I know there’re three teams in our region that have the ups.”
If the Wildcats make the playoffs, they might not ever change plain jerseys. They’ve certainly bought into a coach who gets to the playoffs often.
“With him coming, I felt like this was going to be our year,” Greenwood said. “I feel like that, with him, we can do a lot of great things here and be like a stepping stone to the future.”
Sports Columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576. On Twitter @jmedley_star.