Note: This is the first in a series of stories on high school football that will be published by Chattanoogan.com in the days leading up to the 2013 season opening games on Aug. 22 and Aug. 23. Players and new coaches will be profiled in these preseason stories. Lean in. Read. Enjoy.
It’s football time in Tenne… Whoa!
Sale Creek, you say.
Yep, Sale Creek.
One hundred-plus years after Sale Creek High School opened its doors to a small group of North Hamilton County students, the Panthers are 10 days from embarking on the maiden voyage to a century-in-the-making prep football season.
On Aug. 23, the Panthers of coach Ron Cox, a well-known race car driver, brick mason and physical education and motorsport teacher at Sequoyah High School, will get on a bus and drive 54 miles to Oakdale High School and play their inaugural varsity game. The historic kickoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.
“No more talk,” Sale Creek principal Tobin Davidson says. “It’s on.”
In January 1908, Sale Creek became Hamilton County’s eighth high school, Curtis Coulter, a former Sale Creek High teacher and resident historian, said in an interview. The first-year enrollment was 31.
Over the next 105 years, the Panthers fielded athletic teams in basketball – first boys with girls added in 1910 – and baseball. The Class A school on Patterson Drive – the property was purchased in 1878 and is the only high school still on its original site just off Highway 27 – steadily added cross country, volleyball, softball and wrestling programs.
Football remained a pipe dream, but there is no understating what football means to the school and tight-knit community.
“These are exciting times,” Panthers athletic director Hugh Coulter said. “It used to be a joke that we’re one of the best-kept secrets school-wise in Hamilton County. The secret’s out. We’re one of the top schools academically in the county and now we’re about to realize the dream of having a football team.
“This has been talked about for years. We questioned whether we could pull this off, but it’s going to happen.”
The ambitious plan to start football began with a middle school team. When Davidson, a former Soddy-Daisy High basketball standout who coached the boys team at Sale Creek for 10 years and was an assistant principal for one, was promoted to the principal’s post for the 2012-13 school year his primary objective was to add varsity football to the Panthers’ athletic program.
Longtime County Commissioner Fred Skillern and Hamilton County mayor Jim Coppinger, appointed in January 2011, provided Sale Creek with a $50,000 get-started donation and the dream moved closer to becoming reality.
“We could buy some helmets and pads,” Davidson said. “At least we were able to crawl.”
Equipment is not cheap these days.
Hugh Coulter said the average cost of outfitting each player is roughly $650. Multiply that by 35 and the necessary gear takes approximately $23,000, or nearly half of the original investment.
A practice field adjacent to North Hamilton County Elementary School, a short 3-mile ride down Highway 27 to Industrial Boulevard, currently accommodates Cox’s Panthers.
A recent visit reveals five bales of hay positioned in front of two portable buildings – moved from the high school – that serve as a temporary “field house” and are partially shaded from the afternoon sun by a 20-foot tree. A five-player blocking sled is one sign indicating the presence of a fledgling football endeavor.
The other indicator are goalposts, claimed from the old Red Bank Middle School, lying in pieces on the edge of the practice field nearest the road – they were cut up before being moved and will be welded back together before placed in the ground.
A home field remains just a thought in the collective minds of school administrators, coaches and supporters making up a fairly strong fan base.
This season Sale Creek will play four home games at Finley Stadium, a 20,000-seat college facility in downtown Chattanooga. The Panthers will also play in another college stadium when they take on Monterey at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville on Oct. 25.
With enrollment steadily growing – Sale Creek’s Class A status for athletics in Tennessee Secondary School Association competition is based on a high school student count of 230 to 240 – and knowing the necessity to accommodate a combined high school/middle school enrollment of about 550 – two sites are currently being considered for a new school building.
There also are discussions about “adding a wing” to the existing school as a short-term answer to the crowding problem.
But from nothing a foundation is being laid for Panther football players, present-day pioneers, if you will.
“We literally mowed down a hayfield to make our practice field,” said the 47-year-old Cox, who played football, wrestled and was a basketball cheerleader as a teen-ager at Soddy-Daisy High School. “It’s tough going right now, but I think in the long run it’s going to be very rewarding.
“These guys face a lot of challenges. They’ve never been under the lights on Friday night. The kids don’t have a clue what the reward will be. We have good athletes at Sale Creek. The biggest problem is teaching them how to be good football players.”
On Aug. 2, the Panthers made a 66-mile round trip to Lookout Valley High School to participate in a preseason scrimmage with the Yellow Jackets and Sequatchie County, two well-established programs.
It was Sale Creek’s second “official” appearance as a varsity team, having scrimmaged Midway in the spring. At that time the Panthers’ roster included 30 players, one more than the school’s original student body.
Twelve players quit the team after spring practice. A few more showed up when school began earlier this month. But the late-arrivals were shown the back of the line in terms of availability for Cox.
“Those kids will be welcomed,” Cox said. “But they won’t see game time until after the fifth week of the season because it wouldn’t be fair to the guys that have been with us from the start to just let them come in and play.”
Playing is what the Panthers, bonded by the historical endeavor they are undertaking, are all about.
But playing is what many of them haven’t done for years.
Take senior running back/linebacker Cody Daniels.
Daniels played seventh-grade football at Hixson Middle and a year later was at Soddy-Daisy Middle. Daniels’ football career stopped there. As a Sale Creek student he was not allowed to play at Soddy-Daisy High and he didn’t have the necessary transportation to play at Hixson High.
Without Sale Creek football coming online, Daniels’ football playing days, placed in mothballs for his ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade years, would have been toast.
“(Playing at Sale Creek) is a blessing,” the 6-foot, 175-pound Daniels said. “Not being able to play was bothersome. I had friends playing at Soddy-Daisy, but I didn’t have a way to get to Hixson. There was nothing I could do because I’m a Panther. Without football here I would be in the gym shooting basketballs with a couple of other kids.”
Sale Creek High was 89-years-old when junior running back/linebacker Dylan Johnson was born. Johnson admitted to being edgy during the ride to Lookout Valley on a hot, sunny evening earlier this month.
“There had been rumors for years about us getting a football team,” Johnson said. “I really was nervous. After the first few plays it felt good. I’ve played football all my life (save his freshman and sophomore years) and I love it. This is fun because I’m part of history at Sale Creek and that makes it better.”
Quarterback/safety Cody Heard, a 6-3, 160-pound junior, also had to shake off the rust from two years of inactivity to regain his footing in the sport.
Heard is cognizant that opposing teams aren’t likely to show much mercy on the first-year Panthers, despite a combined 38-68 record in 2012 by their upcoming foes – Marion County (9-3) and South Pittsburg (8-4) were the only teams with winning records.
“They think we’re a new team and don’t know what we’re doing,” said Heard, who admitted he probably would have gone to Hixson this year to play football before returning to Sale Creek for the basketball season had the Panthers not started their own team. “If we can surprise some people early in the season, others might not just walk in thinking it’s going to be an easy win.”
The Panthers will roll into the bright local football spotlight on Aug. 17 when they take part in the preseason jamboree at Finley Stadium, their final tune-up for the regular season. They will play Grace Baptist at 6:30 p.m. in the first of two nights of jamboree action the stadium that serves as the home for UT-Chattanooga’s football Mocs.
Sale Creek’s first “home” and District 6-A game at Finley will be against South Pittsburg on Sept. 6 after first playing Oakdale and Red Boiling Springs on the road. Those two teams were a combined 4-16 last season.
But the Pirates are perennial state title contenders.
In 30 state tournament appearances, including 12 straight, South Pittsburg – the school opened in 1924 and is located downtown on Old Highway 72/27 – has captured five state championships with an overall 64-25 postseason record and 15 trips to the semifinals and finals, according to the Tennessee Prep Football Database website.
In 1910 Marion County, a school those came from the purchase of the old Pryor Institute, a facility dating to 1887, has won four state titles, the last in 1995, and boasts a 46-26 playoff record. The Warriors host the Panthers on Oct. 4, a week before Sale Creek celebrates its first homecoming against Grace Baptist.
“Three or four teams will be tough for us and I don’t think anybody thinks we’re going 10-0,” said Cox, who has appeared in 160-plus ARCA races, was that racing circuit’s rookie of the year in 1999 and has his motorsport class at Sequoyah build one dirt race car per school year that is driven by the him at Boyd’s Speedway.
“I also don’t think we’ll go 0-10 like a lot of people do,” he said. “Aside from those three or four teams, we should be competitive in the other games. Sale Creek is ready for football. The community supports us 100 percent. And I’m preaching to these kids that their pictures will hang in this school the rest of time because they’re making history as the first football team ever at Sale Creek.”
That’s a historical perspective for something that has been in the making for more than a century.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)