COLUMBIA — Justin Conyers' last game as assistant coach for the Rock Bridge football team was a perfect snapshot of the current state of the sport in Columbia. The Bruins faced off against rival Hickman in a Class 6 district playoff game and eventually fell 10-7 in overtime.
The Columbia high school football culture begins its shift now, as Conyers moves to Battle High School to become the Spartans' head coach in their first season.
"I think that it's building a great culture, honestly, because now the rivalry is not just Hickman-Rock Bridge," said Conyers, who was the defensive coordinator for the Bruins.
"Now there's going to be three schools. We've got three venues we can play in. Plus, the opportunity of still playing at Faurot. So I think it just makes the opportunity for kids better."
It took a little while for Conyers to adjust to his transition.
"To be honest with you, the loss to Hickman I dwelled on longer than I've probably dwelled on any loss," he said. "Just because, one, it's a change for me. It meant that that was my last game as a Bruin, and obviously I wanted to go out winning a state championship. ... I kind of had the hangover from that loss for quite a while. But today is a different day. Now my focus is definitely on Battle."
The Spartans will play in Class 4 their first season. They will not have any seniors for the 2013-2014 school year. When the school has a senior class the following year, Battle will move up to Class 5. The school's capacity is 1,850 students, and if that quota is filled, the Spartans would most likely move to Class 6.
A matchup between the Bruins and Spartans could come before both teams are in the same class, Conyers and Bruins coach A.J. Ofodile said.
Ofodile said he looks forward to the contest, which could eventually create another crosstown rivalry.
"We're kind of rivals already, anyway, just from preparing against each other all the time in practice (at Rock Bridge)," Ofodile said. "I think that it's a real healthy, competitive rivalry with a mutual respect, and it's always great when you have that going, but also, for both of us scheduling-wise, to add another Class 6 independent school that we can schedule … helps alleviate that stress as well."
Ofodile hired Conyers when he was a 23-year-old, just graduated from Westminster College. He said he was impressed enough with Conyers' attitude to take a risk on him.
"The biggest thing about him, and it holds true, he's a get-the-job-done kind of guy, if that makes any sense," Ofodile said. "You put a task in front of him, you know he's going to roll up his sleeves and get it done. He was a student teacher for us, actually, before he came on as a coach, and he's a natural. The kids gravitated to him immediately. He jumped right in with both feet, probably one of if not the best student teacher we ever had just in terms of taking control of the class and commanding respect and not really being intimidated by any task."
Ofodile said he made the right decision.
"It was a growth curve for all of us," Ofodile said. "I was still relatively young in my coaching career as well. We kind of, trial and error, learned some things the hard way. We've kind of seen it all here. But he did a great job. … I've always said he's basically a co-head coach. He runs the defensive side of the ball, I run the offensive side of the ball, he did about half the administrative things."
The job as head coach is one that Conyers has looked forward to.
"After probably about year five (as defensive coordinator), I really started getting the itch to be a head coach," he said. "But, Columbia is where I'm from. I love Columbia, and I really wanted to stay in Columbia, and, five years ago, I had no clue that Battle High School was going to even exist. So for this school to come into existence, and for me to get the opportunity to be the head coach at Battle High School is a huge, huge dream come true for me, because, not only do I get to be a head coach, but now I get to be a head coach in the city that I'm from."
With his focus on hiring assistant coaches and filling out the remaining three games on Battle's schedule, Conyers is looking to make an imprint as the inaugural coach for the Battle football program.
"Our deal is going to be to establish a program, from the top to the bottom, (with) the expectations that it takes to build a winning program," he said. "The hard thing — well not the hard thing — the challenging thing, I should say, is you want to make sure you do it the right way.
"Here's your opportunity to come in, you've got a blank slate, there's been nobody before you. It's a brand new school, so you've the challenge of starting traditions and the opportunity of starting traditions, at the same time. But you want to make sure, as the head coach, that you build the program the right way."
Conyers said Rock Bridge did an excellent job of preparing him for the task. Above all, there's one thing he said he will take away more than anything from his nine years as a Bruin.
"Team," he said. "Team and relationships. The thing that I enjoy about high school football and being a high school football coach is, you're more than just a coach. You're a mentor, and a lot of times, these guys look up to you. It's bigger than just yourself. It's the relationships you get to build with these kids. It's almost like family. I told Coach Ofodile this the other day, I said that you could honestly say that you love these kids."
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.