After 16 seasons with Brad Duncan at the helm, the West Marion Trojans football program is turning over a new leaf with defensive coordinator Brandon Thornhill being promoted to replace Duncan as head coach.
Thornhill, who graduated from West Marion, said it means a lot to him to take the reins of the football program and that he’s a Trojan by heart.
“I believe in this place. It gave me an opportunity to go further my education and pay for my education through life to help my family out in the long run,” he said. “Following coach Duncan is going to be a big challenge, and I look forward to that.”
Duncan is retiring at year’s end after 16 seasons leading the Trojans, and he said West Marion couldn’t have picked a better person to guide the program into the future. When Duncan arrived as an assistant coach in 1997 with the Trojans, Thornhill was the starting center as a sophomore and got coached by Duncan for three seasons.
“He’s a Trojan through and through. He was born and raised here and then came back home to do it. He’s been my defensive coordinator for 14 years here I think, and he was with me for a couple of years as the defensive coordinator at Columbia Academy. I think he’s going to just continue to work hard and maybe take this thing a step higher than we’ve ever been,” Duncan said. “I’m proud of him. It couldn’t happen to a better coach. He’s going to be really good for the program, I believe.”
Duncan added that people would be hard-pressed to find a coach who studies more and dedicates more time to game planning than Thornhill.
The longtime Trojans assistant has been the mastermind behind West Marion’s dominant defense the past two years and is an Xs and Os savant in coming up with game plans each week to take away what the opposition does best, limiting opponents to just 10.5 points per game while the Trojans went 21-5. But now Thornhill is stepping up into a new role that will require him to take a more active role in leadership and the entire football program, all the way down to peewee.
“As an assistant coach, you have your situation and I’m coaching just the defense or my position. A head coach is dealing with every kid in the program and what they’ve got going on. It’s a little different,” he said.
Thornhill’s primary goal is getting the Trojans to the next step. They have made it to the South State championship three times and reached the third round several more times but came up short.
“We want to get to that next level and get to that state championship game,” he said. “I’ve always told the guys I’ve felt like if we ever get to that game, we’ll win that game. Getting over that South State hump or that semis hump — we go deep into the playoffs year in, year out and just aren’t quite able to get there — being able to find a way to change things a little bit, and we’ll make it to that next level.”
He added he doesn’t believe getting over that hump comes down to anything physical or material; rather it comes down to preparation and being ready for the crucial moments when they arise.
“A lot of times it comes down to one single play or two plays. I tell people all the time a football game can be determined in three plays a lot of times. You have to prepare for that moment and not miss that moment,” he said.
Upon graduating college, Thornhill assisted Ryan Stringer in coaching West Marion’s baseball team in 2004. Then he left for CA, joining Duncan with the Cougars as a teaching assistant for two years. He then went full time as an assistant football coach and head baseball coach for two years at CA before returning to his alma mater, West Marion, where he’s been at for the past 14 years.
As a former player, Thornhill said he understands and embodies what the Trojans program has been built on: Toughness, grit and overcoming the lack of excellent facilities, and he wants to continue that tradition while working to make it better.
“I want to hustle and do things outside so that we can have nice things and build it better, better and better. One of the first things we want to do is work on the playing surface, and that’s just little things,” he said. “As far as the equipment, we get what we need. The weight room equipment has changed and gotten better from what we had, allowing us to work out more kids at one time, and that’s making a big difference.”
West Marion will return Todd Harmon as an assistant and Corey Thompson as a paraprofessional coach to go along with two student coaches. Thornhill plans to hire two more full-time coaches, including a defensive coordinator, and said there could possibly be a third.
Thornhill said it’s going to be hard to follow Duncan, who has been responsible for making West Marion one of the premier programs in Class 3A, but he wants to forge his own path. One of his plans is to create a freshman team that will not only allow them to play but keep them engaged. He said over the years he’s seen several freshman either check out mentally or quit football then return as a sophomore or junior. Having them not only in the building but giving them something to play for will keep them motivated and enhance their development.
The Trojans started spring practice Monday and will play their spring game May 13 at Southwest Mississippi Community College, but opponents for the jamboree have not been solidified.