At this time last year, ex-football player Donovan Bates had completed a cross-country season -- although his heart was not in it. James Parker, because of academic reasons, was a begrudging spectator at football games. Sean Monts, meanwhile, was diligently preparing himself to play center, but rarely did. And Shawn Badie was battling asthma that at times hindered his availability and performance on the field.

The aforementioned Hylton quartet made modest contributions, if any at all, on a 12-1 team in 2001. Now, they have worked their way into being the type of backbone players who have boosted Hylton into the state semifinals for five consecutive seasons.

"Over the years, you get great players -- D.J. [Walton], Ahmad [Brooks], Kenny [Irby] -- and I had more than my share of those kinds of players," former Hylton coach Bill Brown said. "But the guys you win championships with are the guys who have the right attitude, but maybe not the same athletic ability, size or speed. But they're winners. Those guys like Ahmad and D.J. and those kids, they'll be the first ones to tell you that. They respect those kids."

Take Bates, who in summer 2001 switched from football to cross-country, a move he soon regretted after two solid football seasons on the sub-varsity level.

Brown "told me that he needed me, but I didn't think he needed me that bad because I didn't play varsity," Bates said. "I knew something was missing when I was running, and I forgot how [football] felt until I came out here and played my first game again" this season.

When senior linebacker B.J. Hall went down with an injury weeks ago, Bates stepped in, claimed the starting job and now has emerged as the team leader in tackles for loss with 11.

Parker, a junior linebacker who this season has 113 tackles and a team-high four caused fumbles, had to sit out last year. But when new coach Lou Sorrentino came in last spring and asked his players to fill out informational sheets, one question he asked was: Who isn't involved in football who could really help us? The name scrawled several times -- James Parker.

"It was tough just sitting out there watching everybody, because guys I'd grown up with and played rec league ball with and stuff -- I knew I could be out there with them," said Parker, who has earned first-team all-Cardinal District distinction at linebacker and kick returner.

Monts, in his fourth year with the program, resolutely worked himself into the opportunity to earn the starting center job this fall.

"He's a guy who never got to play," Brown said. "But he's one of the most consistent workers in the weight room in school history. There's no one who's more dedicated than he was. While not getting to play, he never showed a bad attitude and always was pulling for everybody else. It's only justice that he's gotten his chance."

"I know that working on your technique always gets you what you need and what you want," said Monts, a second-team all-district pick. "But it always crossed my mind that I wouldn't be able to do it."

Badie got his shot at fullback when Hall went down, and now has rushed for 444 yards, second-most on the team. His 27-yard touchdown in the region semifinal win over Gar-Field was one of the grittiest jaunts of the season in the area.

"From the very beginning, I've been impressed with" Badie, Sorrentino said. "I like the way he works; in fact, our first week of practice he got the scout week award. That's what I like about him -- he hasn't complained whether he starts or not, but he's given us real meaningful reps and is a key part of the team in an unselfish sort of way."

That, in a phrase, is the trademark of Hylton and other teams that are perennial playoff qualifiers.

"A lot of times those are the keys to your season, they're just not guys you know about," Sorrentino said. "In this society, we seem be looking for instant gratification. But those are the guys who do their time and keep seeing the big picture."

James Parker, right, is playing football again after missing last season because of academic reasons. The Bulldogs' junior linebacker has forced four fumbles this year.Shawn Badie, who stepped in when the Bulldogs' starting fullback was injured, has 444 rushing yards, the second-most on the team.The Bulldogs' Rashad Jones, who had only 10 carries last season but has 314 rushing yards this year, attempts to elude Osbourn's Robert Castillo, left, and Kirk Simmons.