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The ground of their practice field is too hard for tackling. The Hawthorne Hornets won the state football championship anyway

An Alachua County Public Schools spokesperson says facilities county-wide will soon be reviewed. Hawthorne Middle/High didn’t wait on upgrades to win.

Their facilities are some of the oldest in the county. They don’t have the newest helmets. There are no showers or air conditioning at their stadium. Their team is smaller by a few dozen than most larger schools – some play both offense and defense. They don’t tackle during practice because the ground is too hard.

Hawthorne Middle/High School won this year’s state football championship anyway.

Head coach Cornelius Ingram wants to make it clear: This is not a sob story.

In this story, their challenges are their strengths.

That thinking transformed Ingram’s twice-torn ACL, which brought him from the Philadelphia Eagles back to the Hawthorne Hornets, into a blessing from God.

It transfigured Hawthorne’s enrollment of less than 500, which has meant fewer dollars from the district, into a family-like bond at the core of their success.

The men's locker room at Hawthorne High School in Hawthorne, Fla., is seen on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. (Caleb Ross/WUFT News) Hawthorne Football
The men's locker room at Hawthorne High School is the same as it was when Coach Cornelius Ingram played for the school decades ago, he says. (Caleb Ross/WUFT News)

Even the hard practice field became a boon that forced them to focus on the technique of a clean tackle before stopping short of the ground.

It’s this mentality that defines them, not a lack of resources.

Resources were not the focus of Ingram’s pre-championship speech, which outlined all the challenges they’d overcome that season: his 14-year-old son CJ stepped in as starting quarterback after their division one prospect transferred out during summer workouts; some players walked away uninjured after their car flipped several times; vandals covered their locker room with racial slurs over Thanksgiving break; players lost immediate family members.

It was their third year in a row at the state championship. The year before they lost by one point.

When Ingram finished his list, the team circled up for their pre-game ritual. Emotions were running high.

On his way out of the locker room, Ingram tapped his brother, the offensive coordinator.

We’re going to win our first state championship in school history tonight, he told him.

And they did.

Their win didn’t come with an influx of funding or new equipment, but this didn’t phase the players.

“We’re pretty thankful for what we have right now,” CJ said. “Whatever we had, we just had to deal with it. And we just pushed through.”

“We know we don’t have that stuff. But the community and the environment makes us feel like we have something better.” – Earick Williams III, Linebacker (Caleb Ross/WUFT News)

“We’re pretty thankful for what we have right now. Whatever we had, we just had to deal with it. And we just pushed through.” CJ Ingram, Quarterback (Caleb Ross/WUFT News)

“They got certain things like we don’t got, but we don’t let it get to us because we work hard just as much as they work hard. We know in the end we’re gonna earn it all.” – Jordin Fluellen, Defensive Back (Caleb Ross/WUFT News)

Linebacker Earick Williams III said it’s easy to spot the differences when they travel to play other teams, like big digital jumbotrons and newer stands.

“We know we don’t have that stuff,” Williams said. “But the community and the environment makes us feel like we have something that’s better.”

Many students at Hawthorne commute from small communities, each with their own culture and some more than an hour away, but staff and students describe the school as a tight-knit family.

After-school programs like football may play a significant role in fostering this. Players describe Ingram as a father figure, someone who motivates them to be their best on and off the field. They swarm him as he towers over them in the school hallways, walking proof that it’s possible to come from this place and go as far as they can dream.

Since he’s a former Hornet himself, Ingram said it’s harder for his players to get away with slipping up.

“I’ll make a phone call to that uncle I played with,” Ingram said. “‘Hey, you know such and such missed practice yesterday, told me he had a dentist appointment. Is that true?’”

He said as players dedicate themselves to the team, their school attendance and grades improve.

Hawthorne pulled its school grade up from an F in 2014 – when Ingram returned – to a C in 2022, and recently launched an academically rigorous Cambridge Assessment International Education Program. The school survived near-closure and the girls’ basketball team also won a state championship under Ingram.

Principal Ginger Stanford stressed that all schools have to stretch their budgets to meet shortages, and most of the county’s schools are housed in older buildings.

Only the county’s rural schools have their own stadiums. Of those, only Hawthorne’s has a locker room. Newberry and Santa Fe High School use the locker rooms in their gyms for games, and Newberry’s lacks air conditioning.

Ingram doesn’t blame the county for Hawthorne’s facility issues. He never thought anything was wrong with their stadium until some of the bigger schools would show up and ask to shower before they left.

“The county had no idea because we never said anything about it,” Ingram said, “because we thought it was fine.”

As the school board became more aware, they made plans to meet the need. 

Hawthorne’s roof and air conditioning system were replaced in 2020. 

The players received new uniforms. When the school made the finals, the district funded some improvements to the field, like fencing.

The board recently directed the district to draw up the plan required by the state’s education department before any major school reconstruction can take place, along with hundreds of pages of supporting documents. That process is almost complete, and will go to the board for approval before being submitted to the state. The state’s approval process usually takes five to nine months, a school district spokesperson said.

The district will soon be embarking on a comprehensive strategic planning and school rezoning process, the spokesperson said, including “a review of our short and long-term facilities situation.”

Ingram said his office looks exactly as it did two decades ago, when it belonged to his high school coach. Holes and pencil marks on the wall remain uncovered. But on the old desk, there now rests a large glass trophy.

Down the hallway, six-week old newspapers stack high on the front office reception desk: “Hawthorne wins its first state title.”

On the neighboring wall, a poster shows a small pine tree pushing up through the ground, surrounded by fully grown trees.

Beneath the image, a single phrase.

It is the size of one’s will which determines success.

Katie Hyson was a Report for America Corps Member at WUFT News from 2021 to 2023. She now works for KPBS in San Diego.