The race for Tennessee's Region 4-5A football championship may be more open than it has been in a while.
"It could be any of four or five teams and, yeah, I think we'll be one of those," Rhea County coach Mark Pemberton said Thursday. "You'd have to think maybe Walker Valley (is the favorite) because they return more starters than anybody else."
Walker Valley coach Glen Ryan is looking beyond the top of the depth chart, though.
"Yeah, we have some talented starters returning," Ryan said, "but there's quite a drop-off between our number ones and number twos, and our number twos haven't quite shown the desire to push the number ones like I would love to see and which we have to see if we're going to reach our goals."
Quarterback Kolton Gibson is the Mustangs' catalyst, but the dual-threat junior also has a veteran offensive line, running back Alex King and receivers Bryce Nunnelly and Cooper Melton.
Like Ryan, Soddy-Daisy coach Justin Barnes has a dual-threat quarterback, Justin Cooke, but Barnes is seeking to replace his top receivers from 2015 and running back Christian Bell. Barnes said Bell's spot likely will be the hardest to fill and the Trojans probably will do so by committee.
"I know Ooltewah will have the athletes and that Rhea County will be hard-nosed and well-coached. They always are," Barnes said. "Like us, Walker Valley is going to be well-coached with good players and experience coming back. Cleveland will be better. But this may be the first year since I've been here that somebody besides Ooltewah or Rhea County takes (the championship)."
Ooltewah's offensive line is the biggest it has been in Mac Bryan's four years as head coach, and the Owls also have the region's largest roster (including freshmen, there will be between 140 and 150 players on the list). While they're replacing nine starters from a very salty defense, Ooltewah coaches are blessed with numerous athletes and a lot of speed.
"They just reload," Ryan said.
Said Bryan: "We have talent. We have some playmakers. We can run on defense. The thing is we haven't done it yet, and people that are going to have to carry a load haven't yet done it. I think this will be one of those years where we're going to get better as the season goes along."
Cleveland coach Scott Cummings has had more than a year to get his Blue Raiders up to speed in his veer offense — he's convinced they can produce through the air, too — and he seemed delighted with the results of the team's offseason conditioning program.
Rhea County, which advanced to the state semifinals by avenging a regular-season loss to Ooltewah, will miss graduated receiver Noel Patterson and must find a new quarterback, but the Eagles return thousand-yard rushers Cody Bice and Mason Stephenson.
Among the region's coaches, there was little mention of McMinn County, but the Cherokees are returning to the team's deep-rooted tradition — a wing-T offense — and they'll do so behind a line that features big tackles and smaller but much quicker guards.
Coach Bo Cagle said opponents will know what his Cherokees are going to do — the question is whether or not they can stop it consistently.
Contact Ward Gossett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-886-4765. Follow him on Twitter@wardgossett.
REGION 4-5A AT A GLANCE
Team to beat: It could be that Walker Valley, which has never won a postseason game, will at least be in a conversation that typically has been reserved for Ooltewah and Rhea County. The Mustangs lost just four starters from a team that disappointed coaches and fans alike with a 4-6 finish that had at least two nail-biting losses, including a one-point setback in overtime to region champion Ooltewah.
Watch out for: Cleveland, under second-year coach Scott Cummings, got a year of experience for a young, athletic and fast team. Cummings’ veer will present problems, but he also has a pair of talented receivers.
Best game: If Walker Valley performs to potential and expectations, the Mustangs could find their championship aspirations hanging on the final regular-season game at home on Oct. 28 vs. defending champion Ooltewah.
Dream schedule: Walker Valley’s nonregion schedule might be the most favorable other than the opener on the road against Super 32 member and county rival Bradley Central. Beyond the Bears, the Mustangs host 4A’s Hixson and 2A’s Tyner and travel to 4A’s Coffee County, which hasn’t had a winning season since 2007.
Nightmare schedule: Outside of region play, Rhea County opens at Baylor and hosts Indianapolis Cathedral, a perennial Hoosier State power. The Golden Eagles’ final two games are at home — region contests vs. Walker Valley and McMinn County.
Players to watch: There are two returning QBs of note — Soddy-Daisy’s Justin Cooke and Walker Valley’s Kolton Gibson. Each passed for more than 2,200 yards, and both are dual-threat types. Rhea County TE Jared Edwards is one of the area’s top prospects. Although he’s big (6-foot-4, 250 pounds), it’s likely that he will occasionally split out in a wide receiver spot. Ooltewah senior Alek Toser led area kickers with 75 points, including going for 9-for-12 on field goals.
Predicted order of finish: Rhea County, Ooltewah, Walker Valley, Soddy-Daisy, Cleveland, McMinn County, White County.