Photo by Dennis Norwood
OOLTEWAH — With a pair of programs returning a majority of starters off one-loss playoff teams, it was no surprise both the media and coaches poll were extremely close in picking the new Region 4-5A race for the upcoming gridiron season.
When the ballots were tallied Ooltewah edged Rhea County in both polls, but by narrow margins, as the coaches’ first place votes were split 4-3, while 14 of the 20 media votes had the Owls in the top spot during Wednesday’s Region 4-5A Media Day.
With five of the seven teams making the TSSAA playoffs last season, all of the coaches agreed it was going to be a heated battle for this year’s crown.
“This is the toughest 5A region in the state by far,” declared Mark Pemberton, whose Rhea County squad went 13-1 before falling to eventual state champion Knox West in the state semifinals last fall. The Golden Eagles return a half dozen starters on the offensive side of the ball and seven on defense.
“We have eight starters back on a defense that had four shutouts last year, but only four guys on offense,” remarked Ooltewah coach Mac Bryan. The Owls went 11-1 in 2014 with their lone loss coming against Rhea County in the second round of the playoffs. “We have to avoid complacency and injuries. We’ve been fortunate the last two years when it comes to injuries.”
Walker Valley was fourth in the media and fifth in the coach’s rankings, while McMinn County (3-7 last year) was the opposite, with Soddy-Daisy (4-7, made the TSSAA playoffs) and White County (3-7) picked sixth and seventh on both lists.
“We’re on the right track,” proclaimed Coach Glen Ryan, whose Mustangs went 5-6 and made the playoffs for the second time in three years last season.
“Three of our losses were by seven points or less last year,” he explained. “People are coming out for the games now on Friday nights, and not just a band concert.
“We have 90-plus players and have been steadily improving,” he added. “We only have seven seniors this year, but we feel good about our skill positions. Most of them have been starting for a couple of years now. This year we’ll start two seniors, six juniors, two sophomores and a freshman on offense.”
Walker Valley will have to rebuild its offensive line and defense. “We lost four offensive linemen and seven on defense, including all of our linebackers,” Coach Ryan related. “Our goal is to make the playoffs. From there you never know what will happen.”
The northern Bradley County school had new artificial turf delivered to “The Corral” earlier this summer, but will not be able to utilize it this season.
“It doesn’t look good for us to have the turf down this year,” the coach remarked. “We still have to get some purse strings opened, so we’ll store it for the winter and continue to raise money to hopefully have it for next season.”
All seven Region 4-5A teams will open the new gridiron campaign on their home field.
The pigskin season will kick off Aug. 20, when Walker Valley will entertain cross-county rival Bradley Central.
“We’ve got a big rivalry game to start the season, plus we are opening on a Thursday night, so it’s going to be exciting right off the bat,” commented Coach Ryan.
Rhea County will open that same night against private school powerhouse Baylor in Evensville, while the other region squads will kick off Aug. 21.
Cleveland will play host to Sevier County on the first Friday of the campaign, while McMinn County will battle McMinn Central, Ooltewah will entertain Murfreesboro Riverdale, Soddy-Daisy will tangle with Red Bank and White County face Monterey.
Under the new TSSAA football playoff system, the top four teams from each region will advance to postseason play.