They put on the game uniforms and play under the lights for the first time Friday night.
That’s when the Maryville Orthopaedic Clinic Football Jamboree kicks of the 2009 high school season at Maryville’s Shields Stadium, with Alcoa getting things started against William Blount at 7 p.m. Maryville then takes on Greenback in the first of two quarters for the Rebels, followed by halftime passing, kicking and running contest.
Heritage and Maryville conclude things in the night’s third and final quarter.
With the season close at hand, coaches and players from Alcoa, Heritage, Maryville and William Blount gathered for the inaugural Fellowship of Christian Athletes Blount County football media day on Saturday, Aug. 8, at Maryville First Baptist Church. Organized by FCA Smoky Mountain Area director Josh Armstrong, the idea is for the organization to remain connected with the athletes and the area it serves.
“The biggest thing we wanted to do was reach out to the community,” said Armstrong, a William Blount graduate responsible for coordinating the actives of FCA chapters at 30 area schools.
The intent of the media day is perform a service for the Blount County football community, Armstrong said, along with “letting people know FCA is around” and active in the lives of area youth.
FCA media day offered a rare sneak peak of area teams for the coming year.
Alcoa enters 2009 seeking a record sixth consecutive state championship. The Tornadoes were already a marked team en route to becoming the first Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association program to win five in a row last season. Alcoa coach Gary Rankin said he worries little about talk of a sixth straight state title. His concern, he said, is how well each year’s team is willing to prepare.
“You hear it from time to time,” he said, “but we go about it everyday like it was the first day of practice.”
Having directed the Tornadoes to the last three of those five crowns, Rankin is more worried about who will assume the role as Alcoa’s big-play receiver?
Who will replace former quarterback/defensive back Chase James?
How do you replace receiver/defensive back/punter/place-kicker Sam Thompson?
Rankin is confident the Tornadoes are finding the answers.
“We think we’re where we need to be at this point in time,” he said.
Rather than view this season as bearing up under the weight of expectation, senior Deontra Herbert, joined at media day by 2008 Mr. Football Tyler Robinson, Nathaniel Robinson and Daniel Robinson, said the Tornadoes look at the quest for No. 6 as if they’ve been challenged.
“It’s like a big chip on our shoulders,” Herbert said. “It’s a big responsibility.”
Yeah, but six in a row?
“That motivates us,” Herbert said. “We go into the next season expecting to make it.”
Expecting it, Tyler Robinson said, but at the same time knowing the work it takes to get there.
“You just can’t let it get to you,” he said. “You just can’t let it get to you at all. You aren’t guaranteed anything in this world.”
Heritage’s Mountaineers have looked a vastly different team in the run up to 2009. First-year head coach Brint Russell’s new spread offense has genuinely impressed during preseason, with the Mountaineers collecting decisive scrimmage victories over a pair of opponents, falling just short of a third after a trio of dropped touchdown passes.
Junior quarterback Tyler Hartley and a deep receiving corps led by senior Clayton Shell put 56 points on the board in the first fall scrimmage against Sequoyah two weeks back. Practicing at the pace, Russell said, has been key.
“The first thing we tried to instill is an attitude of going full speed,” he said. “Whatever we did, we wanted to compete in every drill going full speed.”
While the offense has been piling points at a rate followers of the Mountaineers haven’t seen for some time, it’s the defense in Russell’s two-platoon system that’s perhaps come farthest. Like the offense, pace plays a big part.
“We just try to get as many three and outs as we can,” new defensive coordinator Chip Casteel said.
Linebackers Michael Cermak and Minh Tran, offensive lineman Caleb Allen and running back Jordan Correll represented the Mountaineers at the FCA media day. The intent this season, Correll said, is to “build up the program so younger players will want to follow.”
Much the same philosophy the last five years led Maryville on the longest winning streak the state has ever seen.
With its 74-game run now officially sanctioned as a TSSAA record, the Rebels are eager to begin another after the run was snapped in a hard-fought, 10-7 loss to Hillsboro in last season’s Class 4A championship game. The five-year run wasn’t a distraction, Quarles said.
“We never talked about the streak,” he said. “If there was pressure because of the streak, it was pressure we put on ourselves.”
The end of the state-record run, Quarles said, did nothing to change the way the Rebels approached the offseason.
“It hasn’t changed anything we’ve done or would have done,” he said.
There may be more of the running game in this season’s Rebels than years past. Senior Philip Juhlin possesses one of the region’s finest throwing arms. The Maryville quarterback, joined on media day by running back Buddy Jones, offensive lineman Dylan Beets and receiver/defensive back Kody Harris, is also terrific at running the ball.
The Rebels are without the top four receivers from a year ago due to graduation. With Jones, Juhlin and super sophomore Jacob West to run the ball, retooling that receiving corps may not be as urgent. Still, Quarles said his team’s overall youth remains a concern.
“It’s hard to compete against the teams we compete against when you’re playing with sophomores,” he said.
Like the Mountaineers, William Blount’s Governors are coming off a 1-9 finish a year ago and are welcoming a new head coach in David Gregory. Like Russell, Gregory has shaken things up with a new offense, an option-based, double wing-T.
The Governors have a genuine game-breaker in senior running back Robbie Irwin, who was joined on media day by receiver Jonathan Ridout and Brandon Williams. William Blount has been a hard team to get a fix on during preseason. Former coach Scott Meadows’ departure for Catholic in late April meant no spring practice for Gregory to install his offense.
“It’s been tough,” Gregory said, “but the guys have made it a lot easier.”
Irwin, quarterback Zach Witt & Co. are beginning to grasp the misdirection attack. Gregory said he’s limited the number of plays to be learned before the season opener at Sevier County next week. Run well, the double wing-T really doesn’t need that many to give an opponent fits. The trick, Irwin said, lies in “following blocks and knowing when to cut the ball up.”
Few teams are ever subjected to an offseason as the Governors have endured the last six months, with Gregory being the program’s third coach over that span. There’s no more time for excuses, though, Williams said.
“We’ve just got to get after it,” he said.