It has been eight months since East Hamilton, fresh off a strong finish that resulted in the school’s first District 6-AA football regular-season championship, suffered a disappointing, 21-12, loss to Brainerd in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.
The Hurricanes won six straight games, starting with a 22-13 win over Brainerd, and headed into the playoffs is a good frame of mind.
However, the Hurricanes might have been a bit too comfortable in their own collective skin.
“I think some of us were a little overconfident since we beat them (Panthers) earlier in the season,” said Logan Jackson, a 6-foot, 200-pound running back heading into his senior year, one of several players who appeared with coach Ted Gatewood at Tuesday’s District 6-AA media day at East Hamilton High School. “That played a part in that loss.”
But one game – the 2012 season opener against powerhouse Signal Mountain on Aug. 17 – has helped the Hurricanes put the Panthers in their rear view mirror.
Throughout the offseason, including the most recent summer workouts and the upcoming preseason drills, the Hurricanes have pushed the Brainerd setback farther into the recesses of their brains with the notion they have a fourth chance to knock off the Eagles of coach Bill Price in less than a month.
“What a great opportunity,” said Gatewood, who has guided the Hurricanes to a 9-22 record in three seasons with a District 6-AA title in 2011. “That’s the reason we schedule games like Signal Mountain every year. Going into the season, we want to be on top of our game. We want (players) to realize how important it is and that you can’t take any game for granted.”
There is no way East Hamilton will take Signal Mountain for granted.
The Eagles, who went unbeaten (14-0) and won the 2010 Class 2A state title in their second varsity season, have hammered the Hurricanes by a combined score of 131-23 in their past three season-opening games. In 2009, Signal Mountain won, 49-0 and followed that up with a 28-10 thrashing in 2011.
However, the Eagles were forced to vacate that 2011 win, along with five others, when the TSSAA slapped the school with severe sanctions for playing an ineligible player (Tim McClendon) in the team’s first seven games.
Signal Mountain wound up 2-2 and missed the playoffs.
So, the Eagles won’t be in the best of moods when they travel to East Hamilton next month.
Yet, the Hurricanes’ respect for the Eagles remains the same – high.
“I respect Signal Mountain a lot because what they’ve done is not easy to do,” said defensive lineman Francisco Rodriguez, a 6-1, 240-pound senior. “They went to the playoffs their second year, they won a state championship the next year and they were good last year.
“They’ve had so much success in their early years and we want to get where they are and be as established as they are now. This year’s opener is a big game, everyone is fired up and we take them very seriously. The atmosphere is going to be really wild.”
The Hurricanes are preseason favorites to win the 2012 District 6-AA title and Gatewood admits having Signal Mountain first on the schedule has helped the offseason workouts.
In fact, it wasn’t long after the season-ending loss to Brainerd that Gatewood turned his thoughts – and those of his returning players – to the Eagles.
“Well, number one we haven’t quit mentioning Brainerd,” he said. “Number two, I probably mentioned Signal Mountain in the same breath with Brainerd. If not, it was really soon. It’s about focusing and getting ready for the next opportunity.”
But, to this day, Gatewood heaps all the credit to coach Stanley Jackson’s Panthers for ending the Hurricanes’ season.
“They outplayed us and outcoached us,” Gatewood said. “They went to the second round (of the playoffs) and we put our (equipment) up. That’s a tribute to them. We have to learn how to do that.”
Hixson’s Novene a champion: The Wildcats, led by new coach Jason Fitzgerald, hasn’t posted a winning season since 2006 or reached the playoffs since 1999 and has never won a state title.
But Wildcats senior Allante Novene is a state champion sprinter – part of Hixson’s 4x400 team – the other members are Justin Johnson, Clarencio Holmes and K.J. Yates – that turned in a season-best 3:28.86 to claim the Class A/AA title this past spring in Murfreesboro.
Fitzgerald wants Novene, a 6-foot, 180-pound wide receiver and strong safety, to use that track experience to show his football teammates what it takes to attain lofty goals.
“He’s the one that can lead us,” said Fitzgerald, who is back in coaching after a year off following a 16-year stint at Rhea County. “He’s been to the top and knows what it takes to get there. These guys have had some tough times. The biggest thing I have to do is make them believe. Allante believes.”
Novene knows Fitzgerald wants him to assume a larger role in helping turn around the Wildcats’ fortunes.
Hixson is 15-35 since it went 6-4 in 2006.
“We talk about it (state track title) some,” Novene said, “but I don’t like to bring it up too much because some people around school are jealous and I don’t understand that. I do let the other (football) players know that it takes hard work to win a state title.
“We weren’t the best 4x400 team but we worked to become the best. The first time we ran together we ran a 3:35. At state, all the other guys ran in other races and the 4x400 was the last race at state and we had a lot of stuff going on before that. The 4x400 is a man’s race.”
That’s why Novene is the man to take the role as team leader for Fitzgerald.
“I know that’s what he wants me to do,” said Novene, who has run a 4.45-second 40-yard dash. “He wants me to lead in the right way and won’t mind if I step up and be the leader.”
Revolving QB door closed: Brainerd’s Jackson has become accustomed to breaking in a new quarterback every year. Not this year.
Samuel Caffey is back for an encore performance as the Panthers’ quarterback and that affords Jackson a bit of comfort with the team’s offense.
“I feel pretty good about that,” Caffey said. “It’s the same offense and it’s just a matter of going out there and executing.”
Caffey said he feels right at home operating the Panthers’ offense, which utilizes the spread, bullets, hammer up under the center and plenty of option schemes.
“I can do it all,” Caffey said. “I want to be a great ballplayer, be disciplined, be good in the classroom, get my grades and win a state championship.”
That won’t be easy since the Panthers have another team with paper-thin depth. Jackson said he hopes to have 27 to 28 players when the season starts.
“We have to work on our heart,” Caffey said. “That’s what we had last year (the Panthers were 6-6 after a second-round playoff loss to Giles County). We had heart and if we do that this year we’ll be OK.”
Tyner’s team concept: Coach Wayne Turner’s Rams started the 2011 season being outscored 27-117 while losing to Signal Mountain, Brainerd and McCallie. From there the Rams won five of seven games to reach the playoffs, only to draw perennial champion Alcoa and losing, 17-7, in the first round.
That tough start hangs with the Rams.
“We started off rough,” said quarterback Antonio Walton, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound senior. “We started as a bunch of individuals instead of acting like a team. After the third game, we became a team and it was more about winning than individual stats.
“This year we’re going to keep our heads on straight and stay together.”
The Rams open the season, hosting Signal Mountain on Aug. 24.
Veteran Tyner coach Wayne Turner didn’t attend the gathering and assistant Jim Parker stepped in for him. Parker has been on Turner’s staff for 20 years.
Lions want to win close games: Red Bank lost its four games last season by a total of 55 points.
Cleveland blew the Lions out, 41-6, and Tyner slapped them, 26-14. However, East Hamilton escaped with a three-point win and Sequoyah slipped away with a five-point win in the first round of the state playoffs.
The Lions, so said quarterback Hagen Wilkey, want to turn those closes losses into narrow wins.
“We gave the game away against East Hamilton,” said Wilkey, a 6-3, 205 senior. “In some of the games we lost it was just a play or two that turned the game around. We made mistakes that changed the whole game. We could have won those close games.”
Had they won the three- and five-point games, the Lions would have been 9-2 and looking ahead to a third-round opponent.
“We have to be smarter with the football on offense for one thing,” Wilkey said. “We can’t turn the ball over and give the game away one a stupid mistake.”
Wilkey said he knew about E.K. Slaughter, the Lions’ new coach, but nothing really about the way he would coach or relate to the team.
“Now he’s like a second father to me,” Wilkey said. “I like the way he handles himself. He helps everybody. He won’t just work with one player or one position. He’s all over the place helping every guy out there.”
Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org