- Associated Press - Friday, September 25, 2015

BAY MINETTE, Ala. (AP) - The cheeseburger bill at Street’s Seafood Restaurant in Bay Minette is starting to mount for Eugene Overstreet, and he wouldn’t want it any other way.

Overstreet is owner of the popular mom-and-pop dining spot located on Alabama 59, a main thoroughfare through the small city that leads out-of-town motorists to Alabama’s beaches.

Every week he makes a wager with the three or four members of the high school football team who work at his eatery: If they win Friday night’s game, the cheeseburger and French fries are on the house. If they lose, it’s good-bye free food.

“It’s been really good for the town to see them winning,” Overstreet said, noting that business has been good during Friday evening home games for the Baldwin County Tigers. “If the team is winning, they want to go out and come here. Before we got the new coach … it was terrible. No one paid attention.”

The newfound success of the Tigers football team, which has raced off to its first 4-0 start in 13 years, has helped lift up spirits in this south Alabama community where generations of families still congregate at the football field with hopes for victories while reflecting on seasons gone by.

For Bay Minette, an older city within Alabama’s fastest-growing county, the team’s successes couldn’t come at a better time. For the past decade or so, the entire community has had to sit back and watch as the rest of Baldwin County added new businesses, subdivisions, residents, restaurants, hotels, schools and tourists.

“To some degree, when you are not growing or expanding and most of the communities around you in the county are … you get that sense that you are being left behind,” Bay Minette Mayor Bob Wills said. “That atmosphere and attitude got into our town to some degree. I think that has changed.”

Thanks to an influx of new blood into the high school, which includes second-year principal Craig Smith and second-year head football coach Nathan McDaniel, and some relatively new faces leading the city - including Wills, now in his third year as mayor - the city is poised to make a much-needed change in re-energizing itself amid all the growth that has occurred south of it.

The positivity was at voluminous levels on a recent Friday morning inside the Baldwin County High School’s gymnasium where the entire student body assembled for a loud pep rally.

Students brought whatever they could to find to bang together as a noise maker: Garbage cans, stock pots and blocks found on the floors of the school’s wood shop.

William Jones, a math teacher and assistant cheer coach, leads the rallies. He, too, is a relatively new full-time addition to the high school.

Jones, a Baldwin County High School graduate, gets into it by developing a theme - at one particular rally, the theme was “Flashback Friday,” and Jones was dressed in a “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” 1990s-era outfit. Students competed in skits and dance-offs with the winners determined by a panel of judges. The student section was encouraged, again, to make as much noise as possible.

“I’ve never seen anything on this scale with an assembly with this much excitement and with this much control,” Smith, 46, a 1987 graduate of Baldwin County High School who became principal in November 2013, said. “It’s new people and new energy.”

Having a good football program helps. Baldwin County High School, for years, had been a doormat. From the 2010 season to 2013, the team went 2-39. It had not had a winning season since the days of Wallace Gilberry and Coach Jack French in the early 2000s.

Enter Nathan McDaniel, the former defensive coordinator at Daphne who was hired in January 2014.

“I had so many people call me and say, ‘this is a career killer,’” McDaniel, a 31-year-old Stapleton resident, said. “I saw an opportunity and a blank canvas.”

At the end of the 2013 season, when the football team went 0-10, there were fewer than 40 kids on the team. At the start of the 2015 season, McDaniel had 120 students attending spring practices.

“We do a good job recruiting our hallways and getting all we can,” McDaniel said. “Every kid on this team has a role and understands their role. Having depth and numbers is everything.”

It’s not like McDaniel has a hefty budget to work with. When he arrived to the school, the football field was in disarray and the fieldhouse was incomplete.

McDaniel said he went out into the community, not to ask for money, but for support and to begin building relationships. Over time, he’s gotten help: Dobbins Builders, for example, assisted in renovating the fieldhouse to add coaches and meeting rooms.

Meanwhile, the entire football stadium was repainted and the grass was redone. A cinder wall that “looked like a prison” was removed in an effort to make the stadium more aesthetically pleasing.

McDaniel also had the school’s logo redesigned in an effort to rebrand the program.

“Everything was here to be successful,” he said. “You just needed to hang some meat on the bones.”

He added, “There is so much that still has to be done, but we’ve gotten off to a good start.”

The enthusiasm is telling. The pep rallies are not only attended by the student body, but also by parents and supporters in the community. Generations of family members will show up for the home football games, a telling reminder for Smith and others associated with the high school of Bay Minette’s small-town roots.

The school recently started the Tiger for Life alumni club, which aims at connecting professional adults with students who might be interested in a particular field of study.

Smith said his goal is to have people involved with the school system, particularly the student body. “Football isn’t the only thing growing. One of the first speeches I gave to the student body is that I wanted them involved in something.”

Several new organizations have started. The Future Farmers of America program was moved onto the high school campus. A pep club was established and the chorus program was brought back. A junior lion’s club is in the works, and Smith is seeking private sponsorships to get it going.

Smith said the increase of student involvement has led to a decrease in misbehavior.

“Last year … it was a peaceful year,” he said. “My philosophy is if the kids are involved in organizations and activities, they have one more adult to answer to and who will keep an eye on them and watch them.”

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