Coaches and select players met with the media Wednesday morning at The Bridge in Ooltewah. It was the annual Region 4-5A Media Day event and when the polling was done, both coaches and scribes agreed - it was coming down to Ooltewah and Rhea County to battle for the honors.
The Ooltewah Owls and the Rhea County Golden Eagles both advanced to the Class 5-A football playoffs last fall with Ooltewah getting eliminated by the Golden Eagles in the second round.
Both teams entered that contest unbeaten, but Rhea County routed the Owls by a 47-14 final to advance.
Rhea County went on to with 13 straight games before getting beat in the semis by eventual state champ Knoxville West, so it’s no real surprise that these two teams were picked by the media and the coaches to lead the way for the Region 4-5A league this season.
The Owls finished 11-1 last fall, but were picked first in both polls with Rhea County second. Cleveland was a unanimous third in both while Walker Valley was fourth and McMinn County fifth in the media poll. Their positions switched in the coaches poll. Soddy Daisy and White County were picked sixth and seventh, respectively, in both polls.
The first game is still more than three weeks away as practice in pads started just Monday. Despite the heat and humidity, hopes and expectations are high for all of these teams as the season begins on August 20. Here are the comments from each head coach,
WALKER VALLEY: The Mustangs were only 5-6 a year ago, but three of those losses were by seven points or less. Coach Glen Ryan returns seven starters on offense and four on defense, yet only seven of the 90 players on the roster are seniors.
“We don’t have many seniors, but the ones we have are good ones,” he said. “We feel good about our skill positions, but how well we do up front will have a big say in how we do as a team as we graduated four offensive linemen. We have some big holes to fill on defense as seven graduated, but we just hope to compete. That’s our goal,” the coach concluded.
Walker Valley will be at home on Thursday, Aug. 20 to entertain cross-town rival Bradley.
CLEVELAND: Coach Scott Cummings was the head coach at Knox West last year when the Rebels beat Hillsboro for the their first-ever state title. He didn’t hesitate to pick up and move when the Blue Raiders came calling. Cleveland went 6-6 a year ago with a team that graduated 28 seniors, but as always, expectations are still high for the Blue Raiders. Cummings feels confident that he can return Cleveland back to the glory days of the mid-90s when they won three straight state titles. “It had to be a special place at Cleveland for me to leave a state champion, but it is and I’m really excited to be there now,” he began his comments.
“We have a rich tradition at Cleveland and the future is bright. We lost a bunch of seniors and are extremely young with just 14 seniors now, but we have high expectations. We’ve got to get better every day, but I’m confident that we have the ability to do just that,” Cummings added.
The Blue Raiders open at home on Aug. 21 against Sevier County.
McMINN COUNTY: Last year wasn’t very memorable for the Cherokees as they struggled with a 3-7 record. With only five returning starters on defense and just four on offense, plenty of challenges are facing Bo Cagle as he begins his ninth year as the head coach. “We don’t have a lot of returning starters and there will be some ups and downs, but this is a great group of kids and I have a good feeling about them,” Cagle began. “We pride ourselves on playing a physical brand of football. Strong defense and special teams are what win most games, but it all comes down to stopping people. We didn’t have much experience last year, so I’m hoping that will be better this time. “Our biggest question mark is at quarterback. We aren’t where we need to be as far as depth is concerned, but we’ll put our best guys out there and do what we can to win,” he added. The Cherokees open their season on Aug. 21 with a home game against McMinn Central.
OOLTEWAH: The Owls had a great run last year, winning 11 straight before the stunning loss at Rhea County. Coach Mac Bryan has 88 players on the roster so far and the freshmen haven’t reported, so there’s a lot of excitement around the Ooltewah camp. The Owls only have four returning starters on offense while eight return on defense, so look for the defense to set the pace at the beginning. “We have the opportunity to be pretty good defensively. We have a lot of talented kids who are stepping up, but they’ve never been under the Friday night lights before. “A lot of things go into making a football team successful, but we have high expectations as always and we embrace that,” Bryan said. London Elrod has been picked as the starting quarterback. The senior started two games last year and got some valuable experience, so Bryan feels good about that. “He understands our offense well and we’ll throw the football, but we’re wanting to achieve more balance. Our offense linemen are bigger, but not huge. And we want to continue playing at a fast pace,” the third-year leader added.
The Owls open their season at home on Aug. 21 against Murfreesboro Riverdale.
RHEA COUNTY: There are a lot of places where people get excited about football on Friday night, but very few any more so than at Rhea County. The Golden Eagles started a winning tradition under the late, great Bill Horton in the early 80s and that tradition has continued. Coach Mark Pemberton just wants to keep doing what they’ve been doing to be successful.
“We’ll use the same system we’ve been using as we’re not changing what we do. We’re lucky that we start working with these guys when they’re in the sixth grade, so they know our system, but we pride ourselves on hard work and we have more depth this year than ever before,” Pemberton remarked. “This is a new year and a new team and we’re not looking back, but we have a really good nucleus of players coming back and we’ve increased our numbers. We feel like we’re headed in the right direction. Our main goal is to make the playoffs. Anything can happen at that point, but we wanted to be in the middle of a competitive region and we got what we asked for,” he nodded. Senior Daniel Dotson returns as the starting quarterback as the Golden Eagles have six returning on offense and seven on defense. Rhea County will host Baylor on Thursday, Aug. 20 in its season opener.
SODDY DAISY: Coach Justin Barnes is still looking for a little respect, but his Trojans continue to get better despite last year’s 4-7 record. The Trojans return eight defensive starters and four on offense, but the biggest question will be who the starting quarterback will be after Hunter Maynor graduated. “We sort of backed into the playoffs last year and our goal is to take that next step, but we’ve made some tremendous jumps in the last year. We could hang with teams offensively a year ago, but we struggled on defense. We’ve got to be able to stop the run,” Barnes suggested. While the starting QB is yet to be determined, he’ll have a great receiver in Tre Carter to throw it to. Carter, a talented athlete who may be better at baseball than football, had 47 catches last fall for almost 900 yards and nine TDs. Christian Bell is another senior returning on offense who gained more than 1,000 yards and scored eight touchdowns.
“We just want to be simple and to put the ball in the hands of our playmakers,” Barnes concluded. Soddy Daisy opens at home on Aug. 21 against long-time rival Red Bank.
WHITE COUNTY: The Warriors are sort of caught between a rock and a hard place as they aren’t close to anyone geographically, but that doesn’t phase Matthan Houser, who is entering his fourth season as the head coach. The Warriors finished at 3-7 a year ago and are picked at the bottom again, so there’s only one way for Houser and his guys to go. “We’re glad to be part of this region, but we still have to travel one way or the other. We have one of the smallest 5-A schools with only 63 players on our roster. We only have 30 upperclassmen – including just 10 seniors – but we expect a lot from them,” the coach said. “We were 8-3 two years ago, so we have a lot of hungry guys with chips on their shoulders. We have a lot of two-way players. We have more skilled players, but they’re lacking experience. Our biggest weakness is all of the unknowns, but being picked seventh gives us motivation as we’ll line up and play hard,” he promised. The Warriors, located in Sparta, open at home on Aug. 21 against Monterey.
(Email John Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org)