Four-year starters bring lofty status back to Bulldogs

By Jamie Combs
SPORTS EDITOR
jcombs@starhq.com

   The year was 1999 and Hampton's proud football program had hit hard times, but J.C. Campbell saw then-freshmen Josh Nave, Corey McKinney and Michael Peterson as the magic beans that would lead the Bulldogs back to the goose that lays the golden eggs.
   "That's what we thought and hoped for," said Campbell, Hampton's longtime head coach. "We didn't have very many in numbers that year -- we only had about four seniors. We thought if we could hold on and kind of keep things glued together that, as they matured a little bit, we could be competitive again."
   With Nave, McKinney and Peterson starting all four years of their high school careers, the 'Dogs reached the competitive stage last season, hosting a playoff game and breaking a string of three straight losing seasons (6-5 record).
   This year this senior trio is basking in the glow of Hampton's first Watauga Conference championship since 1996.
   "It feels real good to finally be a winning team," McKinney said. "Winning the conference was a big step for us -- it was a goal since we were freshmen. It feels real good to take that big step. It's a big accomplishment after going through those losing seasons."
   Nave waited patiently for Hampton to get back on top.
   "It was rough starting my freshman year and sophomore year, but I guess it's our time to shine," said Nave. "It feels real good. It was hard those first two years, going 4-6. Last year was a little bit better. Hopefully, this year we'll do pretty well in the playoffs."
   Hampton, which entertains Wartburg Central in the opening round of the 2-A state playoffs this Friday night, finished the regular season with an 8-2 record while going a perfect 4-0 in conference play.
   Asked if he could envision being part of a conference championship team when the 'Dogs were struggling during his freshman year, Peterson said: "I could hope for it, but you have to work hard for it. This year's seniors have always had the determination to be a good team. This year was our chance and we haven't let down."
   While the 'Dogs have received many solid contributions this year, it's hard to imagine Hampton having the success it has enjoyed without the presence of its big three.
   A lock to capture all-conference honors for the third straight year, Peterson is still working on the best season of his career. The hard-charging tailback has achieved career highs in yards on the ground (1,050), touchdowns (13) and points (82), winning the conference rushing and scoring titles in the process.
   "My biggest accomplishments were against Happy Valley and West Greene, because we stepped up and we beat them," said Peterson, who ran for 166 yards against the Warriors before putting up 143 on the Buffaloes.
   For his career, Peterson has gained an even 3,100 yards rushing, caught 72 passes for 830 yards and scored a whopping 33 TDs.
   As for Nave, an all-conference performer as a junior, his largest impact takes place on defense, where he's accumulated 207 tackles over a four-year span.
   The hard-hitting linebacker finished third on the team in tackles a year ago with 77 -- he also had two fumble recoveries and an interception -- and ranks fourth on the club this season with 61 stops.
   Nave can certainly see a difference when comparing his current skills to those he possessed as a freshman.
   "I see a big difference," he said. "I came in as a freshman with a lot of improving to do, playing positions that I never had to play before, like cornerback. I feel like now, at linebacker, I've been doing a lot better."
   A key cog at tight-end, Nave (10 catches for 159 yards in '01) evolved into a good player at the position after starting his offensive career at fullback.
   "I've had a decent career," said Nave modestly. "I feel like I could have done better, but I guess everybody's that way."
   Playing defensive back and receiver from day one, McKinney owns solid career numbers that include 10 interceptions, as well as 31 catches for 335 yards. He appears to be playing his best football this year, having reached career highs in tackles (57), receptions (12) and receiving yards (125).
   "I lifted more weights and stuff during the summer," McKinney said. "I've gotten better tackling and a little faster. I feel like I've played pretty well for four years, especially this year. I feel like I've left everything out on the field, and I have no regrets."
   Campbell offered his take on the three Bulldog stalwarts.
   "Any kind of play we run, Michael's full out," he said. "Josh isn't quite that energetic, but he's real solid. Corey's playing a lot better this year than last year. He's doing the little things now, like trying to block out there at wide receiver. He's catching some passes and playing pretty doggone good defense."
   With these three forces combined, it's no wonder that Hampton has enjoyed a successful campaign.
   According to McKinney, the 'Dogs sensed before the season started that they might be ready to cut loose.
   "We knew back during the summer that we could be good," he said. "We had enough seniors to lead the team. We worked hard to get where we're at."
   Asked if there was a game, though, in which Hampton really started to turn the corner, Nave pointed to the 'Dogs' 34-20 victory at Happy Valley in the early part of the season.
   "We came out after halftime down by a touchdown and came back and won by 14 points," said Nave. "I think that helped us out a whole lot."
   From 4-6 and out of the playoffs in 1999 to the 2002 Watauga champs, Hampton has certainly made a climb that Nave, McKinney and Peterson can easily appreciate.
   "I believe we've worked real hard for everything we've accomplished, coming from a season like that where we had to start as freshmen," Peterson said. "I'm glad, though, that we had to do that because it gave us the experience we needed. This is our time. We waited a long time for it and I'm not ready to quit this Friday. I'm ready to go on."