Baker Touts East Ridge As Darkhorse In District 6-AA Football Race

With Hurricanes Moving Up, Several Teams Can Challenge Hixson, Tyner For Title

Thursday, July 11, 2013 - by Larry Fleming

Something was missing in the Hixson High School cafeteria on Thursday.

An elephant.

Relate it, if you will, to an English metaphorical idiom – “the elephant in the room” – for an obvious truth that is being ignored or going unaddressed.

The truth is that East Hamilton, which captured District 6-AA football championships in 2011 and 2012, has left the room. The Hurricanes are now aligned in District 5-AAA and their departure has opened up the district for several title contenders.

In their back-to-back title seasons, the Hurricanes won 13 of 14 league games and the lone loss was to East Ridge – 23-21 in 2011. East Hamilton left with 12 consecutive wins against league opponents and in 2012 outscored its district foes by a combined 290-35. The average margin of defeat was 41-7.

Only Brainerd scored more than 10 points against the Hurricanes and the Panthers still lost by 29 points. The Hurricanes eventually reached the Class 4A state playoffs, losing to Giles County, 22-16, in the quarterfinals.

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first recorded use of the elephant phrase, as a simile, in The New York Times on June 20, 1959: “Financing schools has become a problem about equal to having an elephant in the living room. It’s so big you just can’t ignore it.”

East Hamilton’s new surroundings in 5-AAA wasn’t lost on players from the remaining 6-AA schools – Hixson, Tyner, Red Bank, East Ridge, Howard, Central and Brainerd – who took part in Thursday’s preseason luncheon/press conference at Hixson High.

The opinions on what East Hamilton’s leave-taking and impact on the 2013 title race were varied.

“It opens up a lot of things,” Tyner’s senior wide receiver Jarrett Watson said. “Everybody’s got a chance to win – and lose – this district this year.”

In polls conducted at Thursday’s press conference, Hixson was voted by coaches and media as the preseason choice to win the 2013 district championship. The Wildcats and Tyner Rams were co-favorites in a poll of coaches by the website.

East Ridge’s talented C.J Baker, a 6-foot-5-inch, 222-pound defensive lineman, believes there’s a legitimate darkhorse in the mix – East Ridge.

“If everybody stays healthy and buys into what we’re doing, we’re going to be district champions,” said Baker, a senior and two-time all-district pick who is being seriously recruited by Middle Tennessee State, Austin Peay and UT-Chattanooga – he’s received a couple of letters from Alabama.

“I don’t say that lightly,” Baker said. “I’m extremely confident. I think we have the best athletes in the district.”

The Pioneers are coming off 3-4 league mark and 3-7 overall records, finishing behind East Hamilton, Hixson, Tyner and Red Bank in the standings. Howard, Central and Brainerd finished seventh through eighth a year ago.

Still, Baker wouldn’t back away from his outlook despite knowing most polls say the title will likely be decided between Hixson and Tyner, which play on Sept. 6 on the Wildcats’ home field.

“Tyner has a lot of good athletes and Hixson is a good team, and they’re both really well-coached,” Baker said. “I’ve got faith in my coaches and everybody is comfortable with coach (Tracy) Malone in his second year. We’re going to surprise everybody. Every Friday night is going to be a show.”

One surprise pulled out of the hat Thursday was Malone’s decision to switch from a 4-3 defensive alignment to a 4-2-5 scheme.

“It’s going to mean less tackles for me,” Baker said, “but I’m ready to accept that for the team. I can do that. I won’t be outside all the time, but this defense opens up inside the chance to block more passes for me. I was all-district my sophomore year as a nose guard.”

Hixson (6-1) finished second to East Hamilton (7-0) last season and the Rams were third (5-2). The Wildcats’ lone district loss was a 49-0 shellacking against the Hurricanes, who nailed Tyner, 37-6.

In its seven league games, East Hamilton scored 41 points or more five times. Red Bank held the Hurricanes to a season-low 24 points in league play.

Hixson’s Gil Brown, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior quarterback, fell into the group of players that believe this year’s race is “wide open.”

“Anybody can win it,” he said. “But we’ve got to really play hard every night. Everybody has a good opportunity to win it. We’re more than ready to do that.”

A year ago, Hixson knocked off Tyner, 28-19, and it was the Wildcats’ first win over the Rams since 1991, although the two teams met just six times in that 21-year span.

Tyner quarterback Hasaan Miller, a 5-foot-9, 165-pound senior said the Rams hope to use last year’s loss to Hixson as motivation for this year’s rematch on Sept. 6.

“We have a big chip on our shoulders for losing to them last year,” Miller said. “That will be our second game this year and I’m looking forward to playing them on their home field. That’s our game of the season for us and we’ve circled it because we let that game slip away last year.”

Hixson led 21-19 in the fourth quarter and the Rams had momentum.

Brown directed and capped a 42-yard drive, scoring on a 1-yard run with 4:08 left. Brown had a combined 172 yards of offense, 157 coming on 8-for-14 passing with an interception, in the hard-earned victory.

“The game this year will tell us a lot about the rest of the season if we get past Hixson” Miller said. “They’re a strong contender because of what they did last year, but we think we can beat any team on our schedule.”

Central coach John Allen is making the switch from a wing-T offensive set to the more popular spread this season. The Purple Pounders were picked to finish second in the coaches poll and fourth in media voting.

Junior Brian Billingsley, a wide receiver/cornerback/safety, approves of the change.

“The spread is better for us,” he said, “because we’ll get the ball in more athletes’ hands, a lot more than they’d get in the wing-T. I’m glad about that. I can score more touchdowns.”

Pounders junior Kevin McKenzie, a running back and free safety, believes the new offense will produce more points and better utilize the team’s quicker athletes.

But he puts a lot of stock in Central’s defense.

“Our defense will shut people down,” he said.

Brainerd senior athlete Sam Caffey said the Panthers have a lot of respect for new coach Brian Gwyn and are hoping to improve on last year’s 1-9 record and last-place finish in the district.

“He’s a great coach and has us working hard,” Caffey said. “We’re staying positive with our attitude and staying focused.

“We faced a lot of adversity last year because we didn’t have a lot of players. We got tired and didn’t have the energy to play on both sides of the ball. This year, I think we’re going to have a pretty good season.”

Howard, coached by Michael Calloway, did not attend the press conference.

And, like an elephant, the Tigers’ absence could not be ignored either.

(E-mail Larry Fleming at

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