No challenge that Dollarway High School faces is enough to keep Cortez Lee from excelling at his job at his alma mater.

No challenge that Dollarway High School faces is enough to keep Cortez Lee from excelling at his job at his alma mater.

“When you put it in perspective, it is a dream job,” the head coach said. “This school holds so many keys to my success, whether it was academics or athletics or socializing with friends. Where else would you want to coach other than in front of the ones who saw you play?”

Coaching a perennial conference title contender, no matter how stacked the odds are against his team, has become Lee’s job description at a school where playing for a state championship was routine when he played. Never were the odds against the Cardinals as great as during the ninth week of the regular season, when they went from a shoo-in for the Class 4A playoffs to forfeiting four victories for using an ineligible player.

“He could have easily gotten down, plus the kids got down and he came in and spoke to them,” said Darrin Kidd, Lee’s defensive coordinator and classmate. Although our records changed, we still had a lot to play for. We still had the pride and the tradition of Dollarway.”

The Cards beat the odds and eventually made the state semifinals, extending a winning streak to six games in the process. And it’s their resilience — and Lee’s — that has earned him The Commercial’s Southeast Arkansas Football Coach of the Year honor for 2011.

“Once I saw these guys were a team and there was talk of being a team, in the back of my mind this team would be successful,” Lee said.

The week of their next-to-last regular-season game at Lake Village, the Cards went from 5-2 and 4-1 in the 8-4A Conference — a 7-0 loss at McGehee kept them out of first place — to 1-6 and 1-4. Dollarway officials found out in late October that an unidentified athlete who played this season logged too many semesters of high school, making him ineligible. Lee said at the time he turned in his roster to the athletic director and school counselors at the start of the season to check the eligibility of each player.

To make the playoffs, Dollarway needed to win its last two games and have DeWitt and Hamburg lose out. Lee, a former Cardinal quarterback who won two state titles before graduating in 1992, helped his team begin the comeback trail, but it didn’t come without some hurdles.

With the ball at the Star City 41 on fourth-and-8, Dollarway needed a miracle. Davonne Chapman delivered, catching a pass from Xavier Long in the end zone with 8 seconds left, and the Cardinals won 36-29 to make the playoffs — along with the extra help they needed from other teams.

“I think that play was meant to happen,” Lee said. “Truth be told, we were a playoff team. We were down but not out.”

Not by any means.

The next week, the Cards bounced out 1-4A champion Ozark 34-31 on the road, thanks in part to two defensive touchdowns by defensive back Josh Liddell. The week after, Dollarway played Stuttgart for the first time since 1988 and beat the Ricebirds 26-23 — after trailing 18-6 at halftime.

Then, Dollarway went back to northwest Arkansas and beat Gravette 20-13, Toie Roby’s third-quarter interception return in the third quarter making the difference.

But adversity would strike Dollarway twice more the following week.

The Monday after the Gravette game, Chapman was shot in the lower right leg during an altercation, according to authorities. The suspect, 20, was arrested, but Chapman was out for the semifinal game at Pulaski Academy.

“It had me thinking what could I have done to make the situation better,” Lee said. “The job is one thing; the maturation of an individual is another.”

That Wednesday, Dollarway High received an unsigned letter with a Little Rock address carrying threats of bodily harm against a couple of players on the team. No such incidents occurred, and Dollarway played at Pulaski Academy as scheduled — only to lose 51-32.

Still, the Cards finished 6-7 on paper — 10-3 on the field. When he was asked after the loss how proud he was of the Cards, Lee said: “My favorite year of coaching.”

“When you’re speaking and preparing a little better, you can sense there’s something special about this team,” Lee said earlier last week.

As the season progressed, playing through adversity turned into playing with resilience.

“The message I try to send is, first and foremost, stay positive,” Lee said. “If you’re clouded in your judgment and make decisions based on anger, you will become that person. As a leader at Dollarway, I try to be a positive person. When I talk to kids, I tell them, what you’re doing right now will determine your future.”