We are still six days from the official start of high school football practice, but the excitement level is already at a fever pitch.
At least, that was the case on Tuesday afternoon when coaches and top returning players from District 6-AA teams gathered at East Hamilton for their 2012 media event.
Coach Ted Gatewood and his Hurricanes were the hosts and they're also the ones carrying the biggest bull's-eye for the upcoming season.
Admittedly, lots of exciting things are happening over on Ooltewah-Ringgold Road as the Hurricanes prepare to defend their first district title.
While no official polls were taken and no votes were cast, virtually every coach is pointing toward East Hamilton as the team to beat.
Practice in pads begins on Monday while all of these teams will gather at Finley Stadium on August 10-11 for the annual jamboree. Three teams will open their regular season on Aug. 17 while everyone else will begin on Aug. 24.
While East Hamilton is the defending district champion with the veteran Gatewood at the helm, there are three schools with new coaches and all have experience to bring to their respective programs.
Tracy Malone is the man at East Ridge while long-time Rhea County coach Jason Fitzgerald is now in charge at Hixson. And E.K. Slaughter has now made the full circle where he will be leading the Red Bank Lions after a year at Soddy Daisy and the last three at Cleveland.
Here are the eight 6-AA teams and the feelings each coach has as the start of football is just around the corner. They presented in alphabetical order.
BRAINERD: Coach Stanley Jackson must have felt a lot like David in his classic dual with Goliath last fall. The Panthers finished strong and beat East Hamilton in the first round of the playoffs, despite only having about 25 players on their roster.
"We're still short on numbers, but we actually have a returning starter at quarterback and that's a good thing," Jackson said, referring to Samuel Caffey.
"We're not going to make excuses and we won't complain about lack of numbers. We just hope to still be playing around Thanksgiving. We believe in each other, but we have to keep working hard. We had a good finish last year, but we have to do more than just show up.
"We have to stay healthy and eliminate injuries. And we must minimize our off-the-field issues," Jackson said.
Brainerd finished 6-6 overall last year and will host Ooltewah on Aug. 17 in their season opener.
CENTRAL: Coach John Allen suffered through a 3-7 season a year ago, but changes have been made and all of the wannabes have been removed from the team.
"We've worked hard in the off-season and we have good numbers, but after going 3-7 last year, we're in the cellar. We've come a long way since last year, but it's hard to compete week to week in this league," Allen said.
"We gave a lot of kids the benefit of the doubt last year, but we've made a lot of changes. We have 16 seniors among 46 varsity players and their committed to our purpose. I'm just hoping we can compete and have some fun.
"Every Friday night, we're competing against some very physical football teams, but we've gotten a lot stronger in the weight room. Our goal is to work hard enough to win every game on our schedule," Allen added.
The Purple Pounders open at Polk County on Aug. 24.
EAST HAMILTON: With nine starters returning on offense and eight more on defense, it's easy to see why expectations are high for the Hurricanes. Gatewood knows that his team will face a battle every Friday night and he's just trying to get his kids ready for those challenges.
"We still have a lot of questions, but we just need to learn how to finish and how to take care of the little things. This is a great district with lots of tradition. It's a dogfight every Friday night," Gatewood said.
"We have to go to work as there's not an easy team on our schedule. We want to prove how good we are, but we have to execute and be committed. We still have good competition for positions on our football team, but we'll put kids out there who will be able to get it done.
"There's nothing quite like having our own facility, but it's an ongoing process. This is our fourth team here, but we aren't a success story until we can put a ring on our finger," he said, referring to those rings that come with winning a state title.
"At this point, our goal is to compete each week and to make the playoffs," he concluded.
The Hurricanes open their season on Aug. 17 with a huge home game against Signal Mountain.
EAST RIDGE: Tracy Malone is the newest coach in the league after being named to lead the Pioneers in early June. Malone knows a little bit about being the best as he served as an assistant coach at Riverdale during a time the Warriors were ranked first for five years and won a state title in 2001.
He still wears that championship ring and he reminds his kids that each team has the same opportunity.
"It's a tremendous honor to be at East Ridge as we are a proud group of people. Despite what we've done in the past, nobody is going to feel sorry for us. Our job is to overcome and eliminate excuses. We have three goals and they include getting better every day, winning all of our home games and making the playoffs.
"We have some outstanding players, but we need to keep them at East Ridge. I'm really pleased with the kids we have, but our depth chart changes daily. They want to be successful.
"Everybody we play is as good or better than we are, but we can change that if we keep working hard," Malone explained.
The Pioneers finished 5-5 last year after a 4-3 worksheet in 6-AA. They host Walker Valley on Aug. 17.
HIXSON: Coach Fitzgerald proved he's a winner while at Rhea County and he's ready to prove the same at Hixson.
"I really didn't know what to expect when I first got here, but I'm excited about our opportunities at Hixson. We have a lot of support in our community and they're hungry for a winning football team. We just need to forget about the past and focus on what's in front of us," Fitzgerald said.
"We're wanting to start a new era, but we have one goal and that's to win. We have to be tough and a lot of our success depends on how our quarterback performs. It all starts with how we do up front," he added, knowing that the big guys up front ultimately determine how everything else unfolds.
"These guys want to be good, but they have to start by believing they have that ability," the coach nodded.
Hixson won its first three games last year before finishing a disappointing 4-6. The Wildcats open with three straight home games, including Walker Valley on Aug. 24 followed by Howard and Marion County.
HOWARD: Coach Michael Calloway begins his second year as the leader of the Hustlin' Tigers and he's still looking for his first win after going 0-9 a year ago.
"I was the new kid on the block last year and you guys treated me like it," he began his presentation on Tuesday.
"We're not going to dwell on the past, but we had a lot of distractions last year. We had camp last week and had 45 present, so we're excited about that. We still have room for a few more.
"We're happy to be starting a new season as last year was tough. It was a learning experience for sure, but it takes discipline from the top to the bottom and we'll try to be ready from day one. Our plan is to be better than we were last year," Calloway continued, admitting that the season ended last fall with only 21 players.
RED BANK: Tim Daniels left some mighty big shoes to fill -- no pun intended -- when he stepped away from Red Bank after a successful career with the Lions.
Slaughter was the offensive coordinator before he took the job at Soddy Daisy four years ago, so he's more than familiar with how things have been run and how Daniels built a winning program.
The Lions are picked to finish third behind East Hamilton and Tyner, but Slaughter isn't conceding anything to anyone.
"The transition has been great as we have a lot of carryover from last year. Red Bank is used to winning and being successful, but we have to take care of business to keep that tradition alive," the former Notre Dame and UTC graduate explained.
"There is no off-week in this district, so we have to keep our foot on the pedal. "Run To Wiin" is our motto while our main goals include making sure we all do our jobs, loving each other and supporting each other and going as hard as we can on every play.
"I'm just trying to live in the moment, but I feel like I'm where I need to be. I just want to continue the winning tradition,' Slaughter concluded.
TYNER: Coach Wayne Turner begins his 22nd year as the head man of the Rams and he's a true believer in doing things the right way through dedication and hard work. Tyner lost to eventual state champ Alcoa in the first round of the playoffs last fall and it's been five years since the Rams won a playoff game.
Turner was not present at Tuesday's gathering, but assistant coach Jim Parker was.
"We've had a turnover in coaches, so there will be some new faces on our sideline this fall," he began.
"On any given Friday night, we believe we can win, but it's more than just football for us. It's like a great big family. It's always a joy when players from years past come back and share what they're doing and the success they're having in their lives.
"Our main goal is to develop young men. If we happen to win, that's great too. All I know is that we had better be prepared on Friday night," Parker added.
Tyner opens at home on Aug. 24 with Signal Mountain.
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)