High School Football

Dunbar Bulldogs look to bring back bite

Seth Haga, left, and Jordan Gatewood will be counted on as playmakers for Paul Laurence Dunbar this season.
Seth Haga, left, and Jordan Gatewood will be counted on as playmakers for Paul Laurence Dunbar this season.

On August 31, 1990, Paul Laurence Dunbar played its first football game as Coach Mike Meighan began laying the foundation for a program that evolved into a state power in less than a decade.

Twenty years later it's almost as if Dunbar football is starting all over again.

At least that's how new coach Bob Lawson views the challenge of reviving the Bulldogs, who haven't shown much bite in recent years.

Dunbar's glory days, including a state runner-up finish in 1996 and semifinal appearances in 2002 and '03, seem long ago. The Bulldogs have gone 1-9, 4-8, 1-10 and 2-9 the last four years.

Lawson, a Williamsburg native, was the defensive coordinator at Henderson County before being hired by Dunbar in January as the Bulldogs' fifth coach since Meighan left after the 2000 season.

After Lawson took the job, he began making the six-hour round trip from Henderson to Lexington three times a week to oversee off-season weight-lifting for his team.

Lawson said players' attendance at the workouts was awful. He didn't let it slide. He laid down the law, which chafed some players (and their parents). Several decided to quit rather than adjust to their third coach in four years.

"The biggest challenge I've faced was creating a culture of accountability here," Lawson said. "For a while it seemed I faced a battle at every corner.

"But now I'm happy with the kids we've got. They're buying into doing what it takes to get the program pointed in the right direction.

"We've definitely got the right people on the bus. Now we're trying to get them all in the right seats."

Seth Haga, one of the veterans who hopped on the bus, has welcomed the changes.

"Coach Lawson and his staff are going to turn this program around," he said. "He's made us work harder than ever before, but it's definitely been worth it.

"A lot of people dropped out and quit, but that's cropped out the problems we had in the past."

Junior quarterack Blake Martin also gave Lawson a strong endorsement.

"He's got a lot of intensity. He doesn't take no for an answer. He's a go-getter and gets things done."

Martin, who saw limited action as a backup last year, will trigger Dunbar's spread attack.

"Blake is exactly what we were looking for at quarterback," Lawson said. "He's really come on as a leader. He's one of the best athletes in Lexington, and he's very intelligent."

Martin's job will be to get the ball into the hands of the Bulldogs' playmakers, including Haga, who will play running back and receiver, and Jordan Gatewood, an experienced wide-out who had 18 catches for 308 yards and two touchdowns last fall.

Lawson expects some younger players to emerge at the skill positions as the season progresses.

The offensive line will be anchored by Neal Johnson, Bill Davis and Clint Bacon.

Lawson's specialty is defense. He's installed a 3-4 scheme.

Because the Bulldogs lack overall depth, a lot of guys on offense will flip over and play defense, too.

Haga, Johnson, Davis and Bacon will be joined up front by Dominique Hawkins.

Tucker Lyles will be at middle linebacker, and Gatewood will be the alpha Dog in the secondary.

"We have no choice but to have a lot of two-way players," Lawson said. "That means we've got to work a little harder on conditioning. It's going to be tough, especially early on when it's so hot and they won't be coming off the field much."

Whatever changes Lawson makes, Dunbar will not morph into a football machine overnight.

"We're not talking about wins and losses," Lawson said. "We're just trying to close the gap between us and the competition."

Martin realizes that.

"It's not going to be one season — bam! — a done thing," he said. "It'll definitely take time."

Lawson said he wants to "build a solid program on the right principles."

To help his team understand that, he had Meighan come talk to his players.

"He spoke about Dunbar's tradition, and how they used to play, and what it'll take to get back there," Lawson said.

In some ways, it's 1990 all over again for the Bulldogs.