Crowley, Birdville are meeting on the way up

Shortly after Crowley coach Chris James walked into the field house on a spring afternoon three years ago, he knew there was a problem.

No one was there. The fundamental football equipment was packed up, weight room locked and empty, and the fighting spirit of the school had waned.

It was the tell-tale sign of a downtrodden program with limited playoff berths, let alone success.

Or as James pointed out, a rich opportunity.

"I just realized some things had to change," he said. "We needed that place to buzz, it needed to be a place where kids would want to come and knew they were welcome."

When Crowley (10-1) meets Birdville (11-0) at 7:30 tonight at Dragon Stadium in Southlake, it will be a mirror image of similar programs still trying to establish a consistent connection to football success.

For the Birdville Hawks, a victory would match their deepest run into the playoffs since the school opened in 1999. For Crowley, victory could serve as a cornerstone of the program's foundation.

"For us, we already have some great kids," Birdville coach Jim Skinner said. "It's just a matter of putting it all together. There was already a great deal of support, we have a great community here."

For both James and Skinner, off-the-field success is also vital.

While Skinner talked about the number of football players in advanced placement courses at Birdville, James said his team Crowley team lost no players to grade problems.

"These kids love the game," James said. "They want to be here, they know that making the grades is the only way to be a part of it and whatever it takes -- extra tutoring, coming into the field house and using our computers for homework -- they do it."

James said it's part of Crowley's identity now, and a blessing to a community struggling in tough economic times.

Skinner pointed to several players on the roster who stand out on the academic measuring stick, but he pointed to quarterback Justin Martin as the barometer.

Martin's 164 completions for 2,430 yards pales in comparison to his work in the classroom.

"But he's supposed to be smart," Skinner said. "He's our leader on the field, and that's the kind of player you have to have, a player that others look up to."

For Crowley, it's still about growth, too.

The offense has registered 3,322 yards rushing, helped by an offensive lineman, senior Tim Thomas, who fell into the program's lap.

"I wanted to play basketball," the 6-foot-6, 315-pounder said. "I always had great respect for coach James and the program, and I always left the door open that I would need to play football if I wanted athletics to pay for school. They've made me a part of the family this year, but I felt like I was even before that."

This is Thomas' only season playing football, which accounts for how he has slipped by in the recruiting process.

But his dynamic play on the field and his work in advanced placement courses have schools such as Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and others taking a look.

"When I have recruiters now, and I do have them," James said, "I tell them up front that my kids pass classes first. That's a great feeling to have and really indicative of how far we've come."

And both teams will know just how far along that is tonight.