After a 43-game losing streak, after playing for years off campus at a middle school stadium, after not having a winning season since 2009, the Berea Pirates’ football program has been reborn.
“We’re not little Berea, anymore,” said Timmy Thompson, a senior transfer who sat out the season last year, and has emerged as one of the Pirates’ primary offensive threats. He had 205 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 11 carries in their last game, accounting for a third of the points the Pirates scored all of last season.
“Looking back at it, I didn’t think we’d be 4-0 today,” Thompson said. “But with all the hard work we’ve put in over the summer — the coaching has been wonderful — it’s amazing.”
Berea returned 11 seniors after graduating only three, and under second-year head coach Aaron Stepp, they and their school have rediscovered high school football can be a lot of fun.
“The culture has changed a lot,” said senior Matt Crutcher, one of four players who suffered through going 0-10 as a freshman and as a sophomore and 1-9 last year. “In our school, about a couple of years ago, nobody believed in us. Nobody thought we were going to win every Friday night. But now when we go out, everybody thinks we’re going to win. Everybody’s coming out to our games.”
The Pirates packed their 2-year-old, 1,200-seat grandstand and had a few hundred more lining the field’s fence behind Berea Community High School when the Pirates beat Caverna 44-21 on Sept. 7. It was Berea’s first home win since 2014.
With Friday night’s game against Jenkins canceled due to a Cavaliers’ forfeit, Berea stands 4-0, its most wins since 2016 and a mark the program has achieved only three times since 2009.
“Anybody who looked at us last year, the last three or four games, you would have realized that it’s just a matter of time that this team is going to knock the wall down and start winning games,” said Stepp whose win at Jellico, Tenn., at the end of last season broke one of the longest losing streaks in the state.
‘A big change’
Sophomore Jaiden Cunningham leads the team in rushing with 289 yards and four TDs. Jaylen Whitaker, who remained skeptical about the program until the new staff took over and didn’t join his twin brother, Jarred, on the squad until his junior year, has developed into a dual-threat QB as a senior throwing for 336 yards and three TDs while running for 261 yards and three more scores.
“There’s been a big change, obviously, the way we run things, the way the coaches run things,” Jaylen Whitaker said. “It’s a lot different from a couple of years ago.”
This is Stepp’s second stint at Berea. At 25 years old in 1998, he believes he was the youngest head coach in the state when he led Berea from 2-8 in his first year to 8-3 the next. Taking on the challenge at Berea again, though daunting, was also nothing new.
“When I was here the first time, they hadn’t had a winning season in 16 years,” he said. “Historically, any time you look at a rebuilding situation you’re always going to see more results in year two and year three.
Stepp’s 17-year head coaching career included another massive rebuild at his second program in Clay County where he took an 0-10 team in 2002 and led it two four consecutive winning seasons before moving on to stints with Harrison County, Franklin County and Shelby Valley.
After his last head coaching job, Stepp decided to step away from the game and return to his wife’s native Berea where they could raise their family and he could help his brother Dammian Stepp, the girls’ basketball coach. Aaron Stepp’s three daughters could play for his brother and he could be his assistant.
Then the football job opened.
“I got a big push from my oldest two daughters for sure. One of them at that point was getting ready for high school and she wanted to experience what a (pregame) tailgate was,” Stepp said, adding later he didn’t mind the time away and enjoyed the break from the scrutiny that comes with being head football coach.
But there’s also this: “From a personal standpoint to see (my) kids go out here and sit in these stands with their peers and watch my son play backyard football with his buddies on a Friday night and it be an actual atmosphere where people know we’ve got an actual chance to compete and to win the game, that’s very gratifying personally.”
Now, his seniors are a part of a class that ended one streak and began another.
“Now, they can come back for their 10-year reunion and say, ‘I was part of the group that knocked the wall down,’” he said.
Not one kid quit
Stepp knew he wanted to change the culture around the program. No longer would they play at a middle school almost 4 miles away. And no longer would he let some of the strapping kids he saw in the hallway miss out on what they were building.
“I saw the talent that was in our school. It was just a matter of getting them out and believing what we’re doing,” he said. ““Nobody wants to get beat to death every Friday. Nobody wants that.
“The biggest buy-in was getting our kids to understand that. You’ve lost 43 in a row. That does not have to happen. That’s something we can fix and clean up. And they believed in that. We went 1-9 last year and we didn’t have one kid quit, not one kid step away from the program.”
Whether they’re 1-9 or 4-0, Stepp focuses on the positives, always. That’s what will be key as the season goes on, he said.
“This is not a flash in the pan. This is not a one-hit wonder.” he said. “This is a culture change. Hopefully, we’re going to be a team you’ve got to deal with going forward in Class A football.”
Players committed to a summer conditioning program and a staff they’ve grown to believe in, they said.
“We’ve really started to become more of a family,” Crutcher said. “My freshman year we were more divided and none of us really came together.”
At the same time, the players don’t know quite what to make of this newfound notoriety.
“I’m not used to this, but I’m very proud of our team,” Jarred Whitaker said. “We’ve still got some more to go. We’ve still got some work to do.”
Next week, Berea hosts Sayre, a Lexington team that’s just restarting organized football after a decades-long dormancy. Then it’s Dayton from Northern Kentucky before a torturous slate of district games against Kentucky Country Day, Eminence and Frankfort.
“The motivation is there. The coaches are pushing us to the point to where we want to keep going … ,” Thompson said. “I don’t think the winning’s going to stop.”