The Cooper football team gathered around its coach, Willie Howard, in the aftermath of a loss to Spring Lake Park. Disappointment was obvious, but there were no heads bowed in dejection.

All eyes were trained on Howard, who was giving a typical post-loss speech: Work harder, eliminate mistakes, do as you're coached.

To the players, the message was less important than how it was delivered. It had conviction. It had import. All because of the belief that Howard, a former Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman in his third year at Cooper, was the man to finally lift the program to prominence.

"He's a great coach," said defensive back Malik Rucker. "We just have to do what he and the other coaches say."

As a football program, Cooper has rarely enjoyed success. Its one trip to the state tournament, in 1996, ended in a first-round shutout loss. The typical Cooper season in the past decade has been four victories and a first-round playoff exit.

But the feeling around the team this season is that Howard's commitment, along with the addition of another class of football, has set the program on the right path.

The addition of Class 6A, which includes the 32 largest schools in the state by enrollment, has done wonders for attitude. Many of the teams that have eliminated Cooper in previous seasons have moved up while the Hawks remain in Class 5A.

"Even in a good year, they'd go out in the playoffs and get beat by a Wayzata, an Osseo," Howard said. "Now they see the ceiling is unlimited."

Another mountain to climb was the nature of the student body, many of whom live outside of school boundaries. Cooper draws a large segment of its student body from north Minneapolis, courtesy of the Robbinsdale School District's "Choice Is Yours" program. The initiative allows students who receive free and reduced-priced lunch to open enroll to Robbinsdale schools.

"There are so many good athletes at this school that have other priorities, like helping support their families," Howard said. "It's important to show them what they can accomplish with hard work."

Howard saw the challenges and went to work. He hired coaches with a strong football backgrounds, including former Gophers players Tellis Redmond and Ukee Dozier. Then he set about changing perceptions.

"We had to figure out a way to be mentors to these kids," Howard said. "There are benefits to playing football, like teaching you to be a better person and a man of integrity. The kids see our staff, 90 percent of whom were scholarship athletes, and can identify with them. They can say 'You were like me.'"

Improving the Hawks' skill level is the most visible upgrade in Howard's tenure. Rucker already has committed to Iowa. Running back Billy Kellogg has an explosive burst that helped him gain more than 500 yards rushing through the team's first three games. Kellogg, along with linebacker DeShawn Williams, running back Ashanti Payne and backup quarterback Francis Kanneh -- a transfer from Brooklyn Center -- are all receiving interest from college programs.

Until the loss to Spring Lake Park on Saturday, the Hawks offense had been nearly unstoppable for the first three games of the season. They racked up an average of 52 points per game. Kellogg and Payne averaged more than 150 yards rushing per game. Elusive quarterback Briceon Scott-Jones has been able to by make enough plays with his feet to make up for the Hawks' biggest question mark, its offensive line.

"It's tough getting kids from different youth programs, where they were all quarterbacks and running backs, to want to play the line," Howard acknowledged.

One thing the Hawks need to emerge from the puddle of mediocrity is a signature victory. Cooper came close to defeating Benilde- St. Margaret's in the first game of the season, but fell 49-42.

It was hoped that their speed would be enough to upset traditionally powerful Spring Lake Park, but the Hawks, unused to playing in such big games, made too many mental errors in a 32-16 loss.

Afterward, Howard was firm but philosophical after the loss droppe the Hawks to 2-2.

"They will have to learn to do what they're coached to do," he said. "They are so used to trying to help each other that they try to do too much and get out of position. We have to start fast and finish faster. They'll learn."

Williams, a tough, hard-hitting linebacker and the group's emotional leader, feels the team is on the verge.

"There will be state championships here," he said.