INDIANAPOLIS -- After a recent practice, on the short walk from Southport High School's football field to its locker room, a car pulled alongside quarterback Shawn Gibson.
Inside was a local man who had something to say. Just a few words, though.
We're proud of you, he told Gibson. Keep working hard. And keep winning.
"That's the first time that's ever really happened to me," Gibson said. "I was kind of shocked. I'm not used to that."
You tend not to get used to it when your football team struggles like the one at Southport, a nearly 2,000-student school on Indianapolis' south side and a member of Indiana's largest football class, Class 5A.
Struggles as in three total wins in a four-year span. Struggles as in three head coaches in as many seasons, not too long ago. Struggles as in zero winning campaigns in more than a decade.
Of course, Gibson shouldn't be shocked by his recent roadside chat, considering Southport's 2008 turnaround. After years of one, one, zero and one win -- and after a 20-point, here-we-go-again loss to start this season -- the Cardinals won the competitive Conference Indiana with an undefeated league record. They finished the regular season on an eight-game winning streak and ranked fourth in the state's 5A Associated Press poll. Heading into Friday, they are 9-1 overall, just two wins away from the most improbable of sectional titles.
Sure, that title might not happen, with 8-2 Avon High School coming to town Friday, and tradition-rich Ben Davis High School (7-3) likely awaiting the victor. But considering preseason expectations, that's OK.
Ask them even now, and all the Cardinals wanted was .500.
Actually, that's all they hoped for three years ago, when things began to change.
Pete Hubert and Bill Peebles knew their task, and they knew it was tough.
Hubert was in his third year as athletic director -- and already on his third head football coach -- trying to restore Southport's football glory.
Bill Peebles was Hubert's Try No. 3, a 35-year-old former Indianapolis football standout, a three-time state-champion offensive coordinator at his alma mater, Cathedral High School, just trying to make it on his own as a program rebuilder.
So when the two hatched their plan in 2005, they kept it simple: Stress fundamentals. Hit the weights. Be patient.
Follow this and maybe, by the fourth or fifth year, a 5-5 record would be reachable -- "a very good start," Hubert said.
After a 2-28 beginning to Peebles' career, including 1-9 last season, that "good start" appeared impossible. But the Cardinals knew they were close, rarely feeling overmatched even as the losses mounted.
That's why Peebles coined a new team slogan: "WIN -- What's Important Now." They competed in 2007. Focus on winning in 2008, and maybe some of those games would actually go their way.
Boy, did they. But why?
"When I first got here, we had a good player here or there and some pretty good kids," Peebles said. "[But] we didn't have enough to compete at the level we played at each week. We were just playing better teams, more complete teams."
Now Southport is the complete team, thanks to "a mature group of seniors who have good work ethic," Peebles said, "who have stuck with the program, a good coaching staff, supportive administration -- and we have some good, talented underclassmen."
One senior is Gibson, who points to his team's togetherness through tough times -- "We haven't split up -- nobody quit," he said -- as a reason for the resurrection.
Gibson, to Peebles, is the classic game-manager quarterback.
"He puts us in the right spots a lot," Peebles said. "He corrects a lot of my mistakes. He knows what's going on as much as I do. I can ask him to make adjustments on the field that a lot of quarterbacks don't make.
"He can do things in games where we haven't practiced a play, and he'll see something. All of a sudden, instead of running to the strong side, we're running to the weak side -- something we haven't practiced all week. We're able to do that because he sees it."
Sounds a bit like another quarterback in Indianapolis
"Well, I'm not saying he's that smart," Peebles said. "And he's not a great thrower. But he's an adequate thrower, [and] he can do the things that we need him to do."
One thing they need him to do: Get the ball to fellow senior Nick Turner, Southport's burner of a running back -- who almost wasn't around this year.
The Game Breaker
Late last season, Peebles didn't see enough commitment from the multitalented Turner, also a three-time state finalist in the 200-meter dash. Not in the classroom, not on the field.
So Peebles kicked Turner off the team.
But Peebles always liked the running back, and "was always rooting for him," he said. So when Turner approached Peebles in July, all the coach needed was dedication. And that's what he got.
Turner now is the school's single-season record holder in rushing yards, with 1,932 through 10 games. His 193.2 yards-per-game mark is sixth-best in the state. Once a track-only college prospect, he now is drawing interest from Ball State and Western Kentucky, although he's unsure which sport he wants to pursue.
Still, he has options, all because of that life-changing dismissal.
"It just made me think of everything that I should be doing and I can be doing," Turner said. "And I'm glad that I made the smart decision."
Peebles knows he can't compete numbers-wise with some of Indianapolis' mega-programs, whose rosters -- and school enrollments -- are sometimes double that of Southport's.
But he knows he can win more games this year. He knows he can keep building in the weight room, keep getting "the right kids" out, keep drawing standing-room-only crowds on homecoming, and keep competing for conference and sectional titles.
Hubert thinks so, too.
"This was no fluke," Hubert said. "This was part of a plan that was put together, and it's working."
Will it work Friday? Maybe, maybe not.
But if it does, when Gibson & Co. stroll back to the locker room after a chilly November practice, maybe another local will stop his car and offer some words. Just a few, though.
We're still proud of you. Keep working hard. And keep winning.
And maybe this time, Gibson and the Cardinals won't be shocked.
Patrick Dorsey is a high school sports reporter for The Indianapolis Star.