SWLA Coach of the Year: Wainwright navigates Hornets through adversity

Rodrick Anderson

One disaster after another threatened to wipe out the Grand Lake Hornets season, but American Press Southwest Louisiana Coach of the Year Jeff Wainwright pulled a team and community together and all the way to the Class 1A final for the first time in program history.

First, there was the coronavirus pandemic, but the real trouble started on Aug. 29, when Category 4 Hurricane Laura came ashore in Cameron Parish.

“At that first onset, it is the disbelief that this is going to happen, that you are not going to get a chance to play,” Wainwright said.

“You think, ‘We have the potential to be a football team and we will see where this goes.’ Then you see the destruction and the reality of what is going to happen and you don’t know. Things are out of your control at that point.”

Even a second hurricane, Delta, on Oct. 9, didn’t stop the Hornets.

“I will never forget the feeling of Delta,” Wainwright said. “We were sitting there, and somebody comes in and says there is another storm.

“It was like, ‘How could there be another storm?’ But then you open up the radar and sure enough, there is another storm. The track is coming right over Cameron Parish again.

“We ended up moving our game from a Thursday night game to a Wednesday night game, and our kids played outstanding. It was probably one of our better nights. I don’t know if it was the energy of the hurricane and not knowing this might be our last game ever, but we played good that night. I was very proud of the kids.”

Wainwright didn’t have to look far for a blueprint about how to come back from a hurricane. Former South Cameron and two-time Southwest Louisiana Coach of the Year Parry Lalande did it in 2005 (Hurricane Rita) and 2008 (Hurricane Ike).

“I worked for the guy that has already written the playbook on how to recover from a hurricane,” Wainwright said. “We don’t need to reinvent this. We just need to do what has already been done in Cameron Parish. We can play. It is going to be tough, but we are tough people.

“He should get a lot of credit for this season as well. Without his mentorship, I don’t know if any of this stuff is possible with my career.”

Wainwright made sure to allow time for players to help their families and others recover from the storm, keeping practices to three days a week a first.

Even when the Hornets suited up Dec. 28 for the state title game in Natchitoches, only six players were living in the same place they were before the storm.

Support from administration and parents, who meet with Wainwright two weeks after the first storm, and the community, was key to the Hornets success, especially financially.

“There were over 150 donors that donated to us from the start of the playoffs to the championship game,” Wainwright said. “It was a substantial amount of money that they gave to us.

“It was homeowners that have homes in the ditch that are presently owners of concrete slabs, maybe donate $500. Small-business guys that maybe lost their entire business — the building is gone — give $500. Bigger companies give thousands of dollars. So this parish is a very proud parish, and we are going to all stick together all the time.

“It is just great to be the leader of the football team down here because I know when there are rough times, they are going to support us no matter what is going on. That is awesome to know that you have a community that will rally behind the kids and school system.”

Wainwright, who has been a head coach for 18 seasons at three schools and won 114 games, said former South Cameron head coach Baron Thomas was the first to teach him finer details of the game.

“I was a junior playing quarterback,” Wainwright said. “I will never forget. I came in at lunch recess and talked with Coach Barron, who was the head coach at South Cameron in the ’70s. I asked them, ‘How do y’all know how to call plays? How do y’all know when you call a play that we are going to get some yards?’

“Coach Thomas was the first one that spent time with me to sit down and teach me the X’s and O’s of an offense. We started with the veer offense, the wing-T.”

Wainwright took the Grand Lake job two years ago at the behest of his son Tate and is now surround by family at Grand Lake.

“One of my older brothers, Craig, is on the coaching staff as a (nonfaculty) coach,” Wainwright said. “My other brother, Allen, does all the video stuff for us. So it is a complete family event for us on Friday nights. My daughter teaches here, so she is helping the end zone camera shot. Then my mom is here, and of course, my wife.

“So, it is an unbelievable deal. In the end zone, I have my entire family but we are all doing little functions of the football game. To be home is humbling. To be with family is so rewarding.”In his second year at the helm, Jeff Wainwright guided Grand Lake through a pandemic and two hurricanes to get the Hornets to their first appearance in the Class 1A state championship game, Dec. 28, in Natchitoches.

Rick Hickman / American Press

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