Pickett guides Purple Cats to first state crown

Published 11:31 am Wednesday, May 31, 2023

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When an assistant coach is promoted to head coach midseason it typically is not a good sign for future success of that team, but for Ariton it was the start of a state championship run.

Back in March, the Purple Cats struggled, going 1-4-1 during a six game stretch. Then, third-year coach Logan Dunlap – who took Ariton to back-to-back Final Fours in his first two years – resigned from his head coaching position on March 13. Assistant coach Bob Pickett was named interim head coach.

“I didn’t come here for that but my only mindset then was that it’s about the kids and this team,” Pickett said. “Not a lot really changed for us, we just kept working. We made a minor tweak here or there but we really didn’t even talk about it, honestly. (Dunlap) let me coach when he was here, so we just kept rolling. It was nice to be back in the saddle but I hadn’t been out of it long anyway. I only know one way to coach, so that’s how I coached.”

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Pickett came to Ariton this season – as defensive coordinator of the football team and assistant baseball coach – after a 10-year career as the head coach at AISA school Macon East Academy, where he won three state championships. Pickett, a Montgomery native, played college baseball at Faulkner University and earned a degree from Troy University. He started his coaching career with Pike Lib in Troy, where he coached as an assistant for seven years.

“I had been at Macon East for 10 years and that will always be a special place to me,” Pickett said. “Coaching (in the AHSAA) was something I had wanted to do. When COVID happened I was sort of on the fence but I got intrigued by a different public school job or two and started studying for the Praxis (teaching certificate test).

“I didn’t get that job but I found out on a Friday that I wasn’t getting it and was scheduled to take the Praxis on that coming Monday. So, I figured that was God saying I’m going to take it and if I pass it, I’ll start my Master’s and I passed it on the first try. I wasn’t looking to leave Macon East but I knew if the right opportunity came along I would explore it.”

That’s when a connection he built at Pike Lib came into play.

“I was fortunate to have coached with (Ariton football coach) Steven Kilcrease for seven years at Pike and we always said that we would coach together again but never really thought fate would cross those paths again,” he said. “We had talked about it before in the past but the timing wasn’t right. He called me in the summer and in the bottom of my mind I was thinking I probably wouldn’t make that move.

“I came for the interview and my wife came and by the time we were leaving we were thinking we’re probably going to do it and it just kind of happened.”

Before coming to Ariton, Pickett had seen the way the community rallies around its athletic programs.

“Every year (Ariton) made it farther in the playoffs (than Macon East) did in football, so I would come and watch a game just because of knowing some of the coaches,” he said. “We got done with our baseball championships a lot earlier, so I came and watched the Long series two years ago here in the semifinals and that’s when I first felt like I would want to coach here.

“The people were everywhere, I thought I would love to coach in that atmosphere. Last year we won (the championship) on a Wednesday and (Ariton) was playing Long again, so I rode with Coach Kilcrease to the game and never thought in a million years that a spot would come open and that would eventually bring me to Ariton. I had seen the atmosphere around the program but I didn’t know the people until I moved here. They take you in; there are some really great people around here that support their teams. It makes it fun.”

The day that Dunlap resigned, Ariton gave up a 10-1 lead to Pike Lib and eventually lost 13-12. It seemed as those things were going from bad to worse but Pickett was no novice at his position. Following the Pike Lib loss on March 13, Ariton ripped off five straight wins and went 13-4 for the final month of the regular season.

“They’re kids and that was a big, emotional day,” Pickett said of the day he became interim coach. “I found out at 1:45 p.m. and they found out about 2:20 p.m. and we got on the bus at 3:15 p.m. Nothing was really said that day but I told the coaches that we were going to do what we do and then hit the reset button tomorrow and that’s what we did. I don’t think (Dunlap’s resignation) had anything to do with what happened in that game. It just snowballed on us.”

After ending the regular season on a hot streak, Artion went 10-2 in the playoffs on its way to the school’s first ever state championship. The success wasn’t a surprise to Pickett.

“I knew (the team could be special) before I even got here,” Pickett said. “Coach Dunlap and those guys made it to the semifinals two years in a row, they just needed to get over that hump. It wasn’t like I was some guy riding in on a white horse making it happen. This program was already great and already had great players. You have to have good players to win. I thought they could be special from the get go.”