E.A. Sports Today

Falcons ready to fly

New man Sanders brings unique perspective and approach to a Donoho football program looking to get back on winning track


Coach: Mark Sanders (Donoho 1st year, 17-14 overall)

Sept. 1 – Horseshoe Bend
Sept. 8 – Victory Christian
Sept. 15 – at Winterboro
Sept. 22 – vs. Coosa Christian
Sept. 29 – at Spring Garden
Oct. 6 – Appalachian
Oct. 13 – at Talladega Co. Central
Oct. 20 – Ragland
Oct. 27 – at Wadley
Nov. 3 – at Woodland

By Jay Pace
For East Alabama Sports Today

Since the minute Mark Sanders accepted the job as Donoho’s football coach in February there’s been a real excitement surrounding the new coach, his new team, this entire program.

And while Sanders has yet to coach his first game at Donoho, early indications suggest Donoho has finally gotten its man.

“I’ve really been blown away by the amount of support I’ve seen since I’ve been here,” Sanders said. “The parents are wonderful. They want to help out in any way they can. Everybody is all in. They make sure we have what we need.”

Right now, what they need is a guy like Mark Sanders.

The Donoho School, as it’s officially called, known for its rigid academic standards, annually produces some of the brightest and most accomplished minds within the confines of Alabama and throughout the southeast. The average ACT and SAT scores of Donoho students swells high above the national average.

Doctors and lawyers and such.

Niche.com, an academic review site devoted to ranking U.S. colleges and universities, ranked Donoho as the fourth best College Prep Private high school in the state of Alabama for the 2016-17 school year. A total of 86 schools were ranked in the survey.


According to the school’s “College Profile,” released following the conclusion of every academic year, The Donoho School has a 100 percent college acceptance rate among its students since its founding in 1963.

But those lofty academic standards and the subsequent results — the 3.79 average GPA produced by the supremely gifted members comprising the school’s student body — doesn’t come without a price tag. Tuition costs range from $7,500 to $9,500 per academic year.

Having said all that, Donoho isn’t your average, run-of-the-mill high school football program. It’s more student, less athlete. It fosters competition. It demands excellence. And that’s just in the classroom.

This is a unique program facing unique challenges and Sanders, a strapping 34-year-old program builder who previously coached at Victory Christian — a school and program strikingly similar to the one he inherits at Donoho — has a unique approach to building a winning program.

“One of my philosophies is to have fun and enjoy it,” the former Alabama lineman explained. “If you’re not having fun there’s no reason to be playing.

“I try to get them interested and having fun and having a good time. They’ll do so much better if they’re having fun and not intimidated on the field and always worried about screwing up.”

Amidst the year-round commitment required of the modern high school football player, Sanders and his new-fangled, old-school philosophy about football being fun and players having a good time is a breath of fresh air.

Regardless of his approach to the game or the massive divide existing between the coaching philosophies he employs and just about every one of his peers, Sanders is doing something right. In a results-oriented business, he produces.

Exactly four years ago, Sanders inherited a downtrodden Victory Christian program looking for an identity. That, and a couple wins.

In the four years prior to Sanders taking the reigns in 2014, the Lions slogged through one of the darkest periods in the long history of Alabama high school football.

From 2010-2013 they had three different head coaches who produced exactly one win. That win, a 28-26 thriller over the Alabama School for the Deaf in the 2013 season opener, came on the heels of a 29-game losing streak that begin in 2009 with a 33-26 loss to Cedar Bluff in the first round of the Class 1A playoffs.

That’s three full seasons and parts of a fourth without a win. All told in the four full seasons prior to Sanders’ arrival, the Lions were 1-37.

Mark Sanders meet Challenge. He came, he saw, he won.

VCA began the 2014 campaign at 2-0 with a pair of double digit wins over Holy Spirit (49-18) and Appalachian (34-18). It was the first time since 2009 the school had won back-to-back games and they finished the season at 4-6.

The next year they went 7-2 in the regular season and finished second in their region. A 33-19 win over Woodville in the first round of the Class 1A playoffs was their first in the 15-year history of the program. Of the eight head coaches in the history of VCA’s football program, only one produced a winning overall record – Sanders. He was 17-14 in three seasons.

“I kind of just realized they needed a strength and conditioning program when we got there,” he said. “That’s basically what we did. Get them stronger and faster. And it paid off.”

Donoho, like VCA, has struggled to find its footing since Shannon Felder left the program in 2014. Under Felder the Falcons were a force to be reckoned with, qualifying for the playoffs in eight of 10 seasons from 2005-2014 and each of his last five years. Twice they reached the third round.

In the two years since he left, they have gone a combined 5-14.

With a new coach there does seem to be an influx of enthusiasm. The Falcons will have about 35 dress for the varsity with a good number of seniors, but several will be new to the level they’ll be playing.

Sanders has been here before.

“Some people it could intimidate,” he says. “But me, no! I take it as a challenge. Any team can win on any Friday night.”

He’s already proven that.

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