It didn't take long for the coaches and members of the media to put the monkey square on East Hamilton's back.
The Hurricanes, who were District 6-AA champions a year ago, have been promoted to a higher classification where they'll be the newest team in District 5-AAA.
They were also a unanimous pick to win the district at the media day gathering Thursday afternoon at the Holiday Inn Express in Ooltewah.
"It's humbling for us to be picked as the top team as this is a great league," said East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood, now in his 22nd year as a high school football coach.
"It's something we didn't expect, but our job now is to earn it. We should have a pretty good football team, but the target is on our back and it's flattering," Gatewood said after all the coaches had made their presentations.
The McMinn County Cherokees are the defending 5-AAA champions while East Hamilton is the newest team in the league, replacing Rhea County, which is now in District 6-AAA with Cookeville, White County, Warren County, Stone Memorial and Cumberland County.
Other teams with new coaches include Soddy Daisy, featuring former Red Bank and UTC quarterback Justin Barnes as its newest leader. Mac Bryan is now the head man at Ooltewah after several years in the college ranks, including UT-Chattanooga and most recently UT-Martin.
Other teams include Bradley, Cleveland and Walker Valley.
All of the coaches were present on Thursday and all got a chance to talk about their teams and what their expectations are for the coming season.
Bradley Bears: Coach Damon Floyd is starting his eighth season as the head man at Bradley whose biggest job was to find a replacement for four-year starting quarterback Bryce Copeland. Floyd didn't have to look far after Brett Standifer decided to transfer from Soddy Daisy.
"We're ready to get started as we have a lot of skill players back," he continued, referring to running back Logan Fetzner and Cal Pickel at wide receiver, both seniors who have been starters for three years.
"We have at least a dozen kids who started at least one game on defense, but we've got to minimize our turnovers and limit costly penalties. Bryce will be missed, but Brett has a lot of experience and he's our man right now.
"We need to make more big plays on offense and we hope to be a little bit more explosive on that side of the ball. We have a tough schedule as always and all of our non-district opponents made the playoffs last year," Floyd added.
Cleveland Blue Raiders: Second-year coach Ron Crawford may be the funniest guy in the group, but he gets serious in a hurry when he starts talking about the Blue Raiders, a team that finished with a 5-5 record a year ago and missed the playoffs.
"We've made some improvements as we're trying to change our attitudes and be tougher physically, but we've got to stop the run on defense. We have eight starters back on both offense and defense and we feel good about our depth at wide receiver," he continued, referring to seniors D.J. Jones, Tyler Davis, Jackson Earle and Parker Smith in addition to junior Eric Goodwin.
Senior Austin Herink returns as the starting quarterback and he's looking for a big final year as he tries to improve on an outstanding junior season. "He's a motivated young man who does all the little things right. It's a great luxury for us to have a player like him," Crawford praised.
"We've got to play hard for 48 minutes and I hope to do a better job as their head coach, but we're excited about our future as we have a lot to prove," he concluded.
East Hamilton Hurricanes: Gatewood is no stranger to facing these teams as he was the head coach at Ooltewah for a number of years before taking the East Hamilton job. He knows what it's all about and he's hoping that his kids will be paying attention as well.
"We're the newcomer in this district, but a lot of our kids grew up in this area. It will be a great challenge for us," the former All-State player at Red Bank who went on to have a stellar career at Memphis State began.
"All of our skill kids are back, but we have to replace three offensive linemen. We're going into unknown territory, but we're working on being more physical. We had a great run in 6-AA, but we can't live in the past. We have a great opportunity to measure ourselves against some bigger schools.
"We have good numbers so far, but we're trying to develop some depth. That's our biggest question mark at this point. We have several upcoming scrimmages that should answer a lot of questions.
Bullish running back Logan Jackson has graduated, but there are several players who are ready to step in and take up the slack.
Hunter Moore returns as the starting quarterback while junior Matt Milita will get plenty of chances as a running back. Bailey Lenoir and Tre Herndon are both proven receivers while Cordell Sands and Austin Gatewood are both proven performers on defense, Sands on the line and Gatewood at linebacker.
McMinn County Cherokees: Head coach Bo Cagle is like Crawford in that he has the ability to be funny at times, but he's got a mammoth job of replacing a bunch of players who graduated, including six of seven starters on the defensive line.
"When spring practice started, I didn't recognize anybody on the field," Cagle joked.
"We pride ourselves on being good on defense but safety is our only position with any depth on defense. We also have pains on offense, but our line is a little bigger. It will be a challenge, but our younger players will have to grow up in a hurry.
"Our kicking game was a fiasco a year ago, so we hope to improve there. We just want our guys to play hard for four quarters. We won't be the best team in the district, but we're planning to give all we've got. The key for us will be making as few mistakes as possible," Cagle added.
Ooltewah Owls: New coach Mac Bryan will trying to improve on last year's record of 9-4, but he'll be doing it with a team less experienced than the one the Owls had in 2012.
"We'll stay positive. We've had a great summer, but we still have a lot of work to do. We only have 16 seniors on our roster, so we have a pretty young team. We should get better as we go along, but we have five returning starters on offense and four on defense," Bryan assessed.
Senior Brody Binder returns as the starter at quarterback while senior running back Desmond Pittman will be counted on to put up similar numbers to a year ago, which included 16 touchdowns and nearly 1,500 yards on the ground.
"We have some experience in key spots as we have some talented kids. Brody can make all the throws while Desmond is a hard runner who can be as good as anyone as long as he stays healthy," Bryan explained.
"We'll use the one back on offense with no huddle. We aren't huge on our offensive line, but we are athletic. We're young in the defensive backfield, but we'll try to force the issue. As always, depth will be a key for us," the coach smiled.
Soddy Daisy Trojans: Coach Justin Barnes may have the biggest challenge of any coach in the district as he tries to improve on a team that was 2-8 a year ago and one who hasn't been to the playoffs in three years.
"This is my first year leading a program that has struggled in recent years, but we have 18 seniors on our roster that includes 75-80 kids," Barnes began.
"We have six starters back on both sides of the ball, but quarterback is our biggest question. Losing Brett Standifer really hurt, but Hunter Maynor is a junior who appears to be the front runner at that position.
"We've always had huge players on the offensive line and that will be our strength, but we still have a long way to go. I'd certainly pick us last in the league right now and that's the way it should be until we prove something.
"I had been trying to get back in the Chattanooga area as my family lives here, but getting offered the job at Soddy Daisy was just icing on the cake. There are a lot of great people at Soddy Daisy. Right now, we just need a little direction as we want to restore the pride from years past," Barnes added.
While Maynor was mentioned as the leading candidate at quarterback, Alex Roberts, Caleb Ooten and Jared Eidson are three seniors who are being counted on to help turn the Soddy Daisy fortunes around.
Walker Valley Mustangs: Coach Glen Ryan enters his third season as the Walker Valley leader and he'll be challenged with finding replacements for 18 seniors who graduated.
The Mustangs were 5-5 a year ago, which is a huge improvement over years past, but Ryan isn't ready to toot his own horn just yet.
"We're headed in the right direction, but we haven't turned things around just yet," he began.
"Our biggest concern will be our offensive and defensive lines. We have six returning starters on defense, but only one on offense. We only have nine seniors on our team, but 40 of our 92 players are freshmen.
"We're undersized in many areas, but we'll just try to step up and fill in with younger players. We aren't real fast, but we just have to take care of what we do. We've been the doormat for several years and we still have a long way to go, but we need to be competitive to have a chance. We can't afford to beat ourselves.
"This has always been a tough district and it just got tougher with the addition of East Hamilton," Ryan concluded.
CLEVELAND WILL BE the first team to play a regular-season game as they open with a home game against McCallie on Thursday, August 22.
The other six begin on the 23rd with Bradley hosting Polk, and McMinn County hosting McMinn Central. The remaining four are on the road with East Hamilton visiting Signal Mountain, Soddy Daisy traveling to Hixson, Ooltewah going to Brainerd and Walker Valley heading to East Ridge.
COACHES POLL MEDIA POLL
1. East Hamilton 1. East Hamilton
2. Ooltewah 2. Bradley
3. Cleveland 3. Ooltewah
4. Bradley 4. Cleveland
5. McMinn Co. 5. McMinn Co.
6. Walker Valley 6. Walker Valley
7. Soddy Daisy 7. Soddy Daisy
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)