High school teams can’t put on the pads for another four days, but the 5-AAA coaches gave a sneak peak at the upcoming season Wednesday during the annual Media Day luncheon.
After each coach gave a rundown of what to expect from their squads, Bradley Central and McMinn County got the monkey put on their backs as they were picks for the top spots in the preseason polls.
The Bears were tabbed by the area’s media as the team to beat, while the coaches selected the defending champion Cherokees.
“We didn’t really want to be picked first,” quipped Bradley head coach Damon Floyd after the poll results were announced. “It seems like every year whoever is picked to win it, doesn’t.”
Turning serious, the dean of the 5-AAA coaches added, “It’s a nice recognition of what we’ve done over the past few years, but in reality we haven’t played a game yet.”
“A lot of it (the selection) probably has to do with Bryce (Copeland) and Austin (Sanders),” Floyd assessed. “Having a top quarterback like Bryce back for his senior year, plus having a big lineman (Sanders, 6-foot-6, 315 pounds) who has already committed to Tennessee, makes us an automatic target.”
With three big offensive linemen returning plus a tailback who gained over 900 yards as a sophomore last season, McMinn County was picked by the coaches to defend last year’s district championship. The Tribe’s starting offensive guards are both 6-foot-4 and weigh 319 and 280 pounds.
“Our line on both sides of the ball will be a strong point for us. A lot of how well we do will depend on the development of our sophomore quarterback (Corbin Powers),” remarked Cherokee defensive coordinator Brad Bennett, who spoke for the team in the absence of head coach Bo Cagle.
“We’ve lost some (overall team) speed, but we still have some guys who can get after it,” Bennett added. “We’ve got to learn quick and try to stay healthy because we don’t have a lot of depth.”
Taking advantage of four second-half Bradley turnovers, McMinn overcame a halftime deficit with 17 unanswered points in the third quarter to claim the 2011 title in a wild 48-36 shootout in Bear Stadium. The Cherokees finished the regular season with an 8-2 mark and a perfect 6-0 district record, while the Bears were 7-3 and 5-1. Both teams lost in the opening round of the TSSAA playoffs.
The coaches’ poll went down the line of last year’s final league standings with the exception of Ooltewah and Cleveland being switched in the third and fourth slots. After choosing McMinn and Bradley in the first two spots, the coaches picked the Blue Raiders third, Owls fourth, with Soddy-Daisy fifth, followed by Rhea County and Walker Valley.
The 15 area media representatives saw things a little differently with the Bears, Owls, Blue Raiders and Trojans listed before the defending champion Cherokees. The Golden Eagles and Mustangs rounded out the media poll.
Getting his first taste of a 5-AAA media luncheon, new Cleveland High head coach Ron Crawford was impressed with the gathering. “We didn’t have anything like this in Middle Tennessee. I think this is great.”
The 25-year coaching veteran is “still trying to figure things out” at his new school, but “the staff and kids are a work in progress and are working very hard to get ready for the season.”
“We feel good about our skill players and we’ve got some good competition among the players,” commented Crawford, who only has nine seniors among his 90 totals players (including freshmen). “We’ve got 32 juniors and 28 sophomores, so a lot of them will be expected to step up. We’ve had to move some kids around to help out in some spots.”
With the Raiders coming off a 5-5 campaign and missing the playoffs for just the second time since the turn of the century, the new coach knows his squad will be tested early with an opening game against perirenal powerhouse Maryville, which has won 10 states titles and lost just 13 total games in the past 14 seasons.
Cleveland will then take on Knox Catholic, which has made the TSSAA playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons, including winning the 2008 state title, before traveling to Ooltewah to begin district play. “We’ll know where we stand early,” Crawford proclaimed. “I’m excited about these three openers.”
Walker Valley also has a new head coach this season, but he isn’t new to the district. Before taking over the Mustang reins, Glen Ryan was the head coach at Soddy-Daisy a few years back. After spending a little time coaching in Georgia, Ryan joined the Walker Valley staff as an assistant coach two years ago.
“I’m looking forward to being back in the district,” declared Ryan, who is trying to rebuild a program that has only had three victories in the past three years. “We’ve got a lot of work to do but a great group of guys who have been working very hard. During the offseason, they were coming in at 6 a.m. to work out before school started.”
“We have about 80 kids total in the program, but only 12 to 15 are seniors and 10 are juniors, so we have a lot of young players,” he assessed. “We went back to the fundamentals of blocking and tackling during the spring. We had a great spring practice and feel good about what’s ahead.”
Bradley has around 100 players out for preseason conditioning, with 17 preparing for their senior season. “We don’t have any James Stovalls, Justin Houstons or Rue Goldstons, but we have a lot of guys who have been with our program and now it’s their time to step in,” commented Floyd.
The Bears return seven starters on defense, including all of their linebackers, but lost three of the four starters in the secondary. “We have good depth up front on the defensive line, but on offense Austin (Sanders) is our only returning lineman,” he related. “We lost a lot of firepower in our offense, but we’ve got some guys who are looking to fill the void.”
Ooltewah, which went 7-3 last season to make the playoffs, only has five returning starters. “We have some huge holes to fill,” proclaimed Owl head coach Shannon Williams. “We are not very big sizewise, but we’ll play with a lot of spirit.”
After a 4-6 season in 2011, Soddy-Daisy only has 50 varsity players, but a class of 31 freshmen. “We are trying to get Soddy-Daisy football back to where it once was,” remarked head coach Kevin Orr. “We don’t have a Cedric Edwards anymore and we’ll have to replace him by committee. Brett Standifer should be more steady at quarterback and we’ve got a 6-foot-5, 315-pound lineman that will go both ways.”
With a full offseason behind him, head coach Doug Greene feels better about his Rhea County squad (1-9 in 2011) for the upcoming season. “We’ve got Desmond Sharpe back after he gained 980 yards last year and three returning starters in the offensive line. They’re installing the new (artifical) turf on the field and we really hammered it in the weight room in the offseason.”
Greene said the biggest change for this season is returning the Eagles to their green helmets. “We had those yellow helmets last year, so one of the first things I did was get us back to the Rhea green helmets.”
The season starts Aug. 17 with six of the seven league teams in action, while Cleveland will play Maryville (in Alcoa) at 5 p.m. on Aug 18.