HAPEVILLE – From a distance, it looks like a regular, old goal post. The emphasis there should be on the word “old,” because we’re talking about the two-posts-in-the-ground variety. It’s not until closer inspection that one can tell this is not a vintage setup. The goal posts are made of polyvinyl chloride pipe – better known as PVC pipe. It takes barely a touch to shake them.
Welcome to Hapeville Charter Career Academy.
“We built it ourselves,” head football coach Winston Gordon says proudly. “The plumbing company next door donated the pipe. We put it together.”
So thanks to Ferguson’s Plumbing, Hapeville Charter has a makeshift goal post on the makeshift practice field right next to the Marta bus stop on Buffington Road. And while neither the goal post nor the field itself are anything to write home about, there’s nothing makeshift about the players that practice on it.
William Poole III has been one of those players practicing in the shadow of that goal post these last four years. He recently matriculated at the University of Georgia on a football scholarship as a defensive back.
Also putting in work on that field have been Arden Key (LSU), Aaron Cochran (Central Florida) and Antoine Wilder (South Carolina), among others. All of them attended Hapeville Charter and are currently enrolled at FBS schools on football rides. Hapeville defensive back Chris Smith committed to UGA this spring and will follow Poole there in January. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are also hard after Hapeville Charter wide receiver Jermaine Burton, a rising sophomore.
Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that the Hornets nearly made it to a state championship last year. They lost to Fitzgerald in the semifinals, 42-21. Though the No. 1 seed, they played at Fitzgerald because Hapeville doesn’t have a home field.
“We were close,” Gordon said of the exciting run in the Class AA state playoffs. “It was something new to our program. Our kids had never seen those types of lights before. You know, you take a new program kind of in its infancy like this and try to create a new culture to winning. You’re trying to take from nothing to something and that has been the transition.”
Hapeville finished 10-4, its best record in the program’s seven-year history.
William Poole leads the way
As much as Gordon knows about building football programs, he knows even more about good football players. And in William Poole III, he found a cornerstone on which to build.
Poole, a defensive back, was a four-year starter for the Hornets, and he did it all for them. At different times he played different roles on the offensive side of the ball and on special teams. But at all times, he was primarily a defensive player, both out of necessity and because of his physical and mental mindset.
His skill set is best suited as a cornerback. But at Hapeville he was asked to be the quarterback of the defense, patrolling middle of the field from the safety position and calling the shots from the back of a 4-2-5 defense.
“A leader, that’s what Will was for us,” Gordon said. “The safety dictates the alleys and makes the calls and that’s what he did. We moved him there just to help the younger guys and to grow and mold them. He was a constant leader and a calming factor for those young guys back there in that secondary. He showed his versatility as far as being a tackler and being a cover guy. He showed a lot of versatility this year, being that big safety coming downhill.”
At Georgia, he’s expected to play cornerback, pure and simple. That’s where he worked in all the recruiting camps and combines that he attended, which were aplenty. And he stood out. He was a consensus 4-star prospect by the time he committed to UGA the day of the G-Day Game in 2016.
“He’s a true corner,” Gordon said. “He’s a [Darrelle] Revis guy. I’ll compare him to Revis. He’s just got the instincts and the fundamentals that he practices every day. He’s got long arms, good reach, his recovery speed is great.”
Though he’s a tremendous athlete, Poole didn’t play any other sports besides football at Hapeville.
That goes a long way toward explaining why Georgia head coach Kirby Smart and his staff made Poole such a recruiting priority. Defensive backs were, in general, as the Bulldogs signed six of them in their highly touted “Sic ‘Em 17” recruiting class. But the 6-foot, 181-pound corner was the first prospect Smart visited during the open period of 2016.
Fittingly, Poole was one of the first of the class to commit.
“[Smart] showed me was that he really wanted me at UGA,” Poole told DawgNation at the time. “He said I was the No. 1 DB on his board and a major priority. He wants to create a dynasty and said that I can come in and play Day 1.”
Joining Poole at Georgia are defensive backs Tray Bishop (Dawson), Latavious Brini (Miami Gardens, Fla.), Deangelo Gibbs (Oxford), Richard LeCounte III (Riceboro), Ameer Speed (Jacksonville, Fla.) and Eric Stokes (Covington). But according to Gordon, they’ll have a hard time outclassing Poole.
“He’s the best football player I’ve ever coached,” Gordon said. “He has all the skills and footwork and speed, but he’s the best because he has taken the time to learn the game. He studies every aspect of football so he can be the very best he can be.”
By the time he committed to Georgia in April 2016, Poole had in the neighborhood of 40 scholarship offers, almost of them from Power 5 conference schools. But his recruitment was relatively stress free considering all the activity it created in his life.
That’s because Poole quickly narrowed his decision to two schools, Georgia and Florida.
But how much of a chance the Gators actually had is a matter of debate. While Poole gave Florida his full attention and listened intently to the Gators’ pitch as being a weigh station for some of the greatest defensive backs in the NFL, his father always made it known was his preference was.
William Poole II is a Bulldogs’ fan, through and through.
“I like everything about Georgia,” Poole II told SECCountry.com. “I’m a Georgia boy, so I’ve been raised on Georgia football my whole life. I’m kind of biased when it comes to it. That’s why I try to stay out of it and let him make his decision.
“He knows where my heart is, but he’s knows I’ll respect whatever he wants to do. But by him just knowing that we’re Georgia fans, I think it’ll weigh on him a bit.”
In the end, that did make a difference.
“The [most important factor] about Georgia would be my family,” Poole III said. “They would be there every Saturday watching. I just know what is really best for me and where I want to be and where I will have the best fit for my family and support from.”
There were a lot of other factors as well. The Bulldogs’ need at defensive backs was a driving force. But then there were the relationships Poole built through the recruiting process.
His primary recruiters were defensive coordinator/secondary coach Mel Tucker and running backs coach Dell McGee. Tucker talked to Poole a lot about what he would do for his development.
“He’s a great defensive backs coach and he definitely came from the league,” Poole said of Tucker, who was an NFL defensive coordinator for seven years, and an interim head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars for five games in 2012. “I’ve seen what he can do in his first year in college at Alabama [in 2015]. He definitely knows what to do in the secondary and he’s a real cool guy out of football.”
Poole was the seventh commitment of the 2017 class. He also was considered a major influence in helping put together the rest of the class.
He, like LeCounte and several other of the early pledges, took an active role in recruiting others to join them.
“I’m just telling them to come be a part of this legacy that’s about to happen,” he told The Red & Black.
Finding the way to Hapeville
An early May visit to Hapeville Charter Career Academy gives one the flavor of what this school is all about. It’s a small school by Atlanta standards, but its hallways are full and bustling with noise and activity between classes. The school is divided into areas of academic discipline.
There are college preparatory classes, but there are also those for automotive repair or heating and air conditioning.
“It’s a career academy, so it’s a combination of college prep and career prep where we have move-on ready type classes,” said Athletic Director Carl Green, a former basketball coach at the school and a founding staff member along with Gordon. “Automotive, dental hygiene, criminal justice, we have those types of classes, but we’re involved in regular college prep as well. So kids can choose either path. We have a partnership with Atlanta Area Tech.”
The school also has a partnership with Georgia Military College to offer joint-enrollment classes for students who qualify. Poole gained some college credits that way and actually could have graduated from high school early. Smith, the latest UGA commitment from Hapeville Charter, will.
The school didn’t originally have athletics. Green and Gordon were the ones to bring sports on board. The school now offers baseball basketball, football, volleyball and track.
The school has virtually no facilities for any of them. They use some of the facilities at Banneker High, which is just around the corner, or other schools on the southern end of Fulton County.
“Whatever facility will let us utilize their fields, that’s where we go,” Green said.
It was an extremely difficult proposition at first, but it’s picking up steam.
The girls’ basketball team recently reached the Elite Eight despite not having its own gymnasium. The boys’ team made it to the Sweet 16. The school’s first individual state championship came in track, when Tamara Hardy won the 400 meters in 2013. The boys 4×100 and the girls 4×400 teams competed in the state championship meet in Albany in May.
With no track, “they run on the asphalt around the school,” Green said.
Most of the kids who attend Hapeville Charter are from somewhere else in the county. Poole, for instance, lives in the Westlake district. But he chose to come south to play for Gordon. The veteran defensive specialist has been the primary attraction from the jump.
Poole played for him for four years. Smith will have when he graduates in December.
“People don’t understand that; these kids are homegrown kids,” Gordon said. “I have to [give] credit to my staff. They’ve done an outstanding job with training these kids and getting them prepared for the next level. And I have to credit our administration, for putting our kids in the right academic situation to excel.
“It’s like Chris Smith; he’s a scholar. His mom didn’t want him going to Westlake. She wanted a smaller learning environment. We’re just fortunate to have a kid like that. But when he got here he wasn’t a 4-star recruit. He’s self-made from his willingness to submit to the program and the work.”
It definitely has attracted attention to Hapeville Charter. Located on the other side of the perimeter from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the school is a regular stop for football recruiters. On a visit in early May, it’s standing-room only in the office of Gordon, who also serves as the school’s vice principal.
Sitting in one chair across from Gordon’s desk is Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner. In another is an assistant coach from West Georgia College and State University. To one side a Hapeville assistant coach is showing them video of players on a computer monitor. A couple of players sit on the other side of the desk.
At Gordon’s beckoning, another student shows up at the door of the office to meet the two recruiters. It’s Caleb Vaughan, a 6-1, 196-pound safety.
Another heir apparent to Poole.
PREVIOUSLY IN OUR NEXT GENERATION SERIES
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