It’s almost football time in Tennessee.
High school teams have just started their second week in full pads and the annual jamboree will be held next weekend at Finley Stadium, so it was the perfect time for coaches and players from Region 4-5A to gather at The Bridge in Ooltewah Tuesday morning to eat some breakfast and to talk a little bit about the upcoming season.
It looks like from all indications that Rhea County is the team to beat.
The Golden Eagles have advanced to the state semifinals for the past two years and appear ready for another shot, but they were the overwhelming choice among the coaches and the media polls to lead this seven-team group.
But there are six other teams not quite so ready to surrender just yet.
The Ooltewah Owls are picked second in the coaches poll and tied with Walker Valley for the second spot among the media votes. Soddy Daisy and Cleveland are tied for fourth among the coaches while Cleveland is fourth in the media poll.
Each coach had the opportunity to talk about their own team and what the prospects are for the coming season.
WALKER VALLEY: Coach Glen Ryan must feel a little bit like Rodney Dangerfield as he’s just looking for a little respect.
The Mustangs averaged about 35 points per game last fall, but things didn’t turn out as planned with a 4-6 record, including a heartbreaking 45-44 loss to Ooltewah in the final game.
Ryan is hoping to build from last year’s disappointing season.
“We’re just focusing on trying to reach our potential as we didn’t do that last year,” Ryan said matter of factly.
“We’re a lot stronger and we have 17 returning starters, including 10 on offense and seven on defense. We scored a lot of points last year, but we had a tough time stopping other teams. We have to get better in defending the run,” he continued.
Junior Kolten Gibson returns as the starting quarterback and hopes to improve on last year’s stats that included more than 2,100 passing yards on 167 completions. Skyler Swafford was last year’s leading tackler and returns to lead the defense at his middle linebacker position.
“Defense and special teams is where we need the most improvement, but we feel good about our starters at this point. We just don’t have much depth as there’s a big drop off after that first group. But we’re starting to get mentioned a little bit and we’re excited about that,” Ryan concluded.
The Mustangs will play the first game of the season at Bradley on Thursday, Aug. 18 with the home opener against Hixson on Aug. 26.
CLEVELAND: This is coach Scott Cummings’ second year and the Blue Raiders are hoping to improve on last year’s 5-6 record.
“About the best word to describe us is unknowns. We’re finding out more about ourselves. Our defense is bigger and stronger and we’re also a year older,” Cummings began.
“We played a lot of young kids last year, but we’re still young. We just want to take average kids and make them better than average football players. We’re still a work in progress, but we’re hoping to take that next step. We’ve always had great athletes at Cleveland and this has probably been the best off-season I’ve ever been part of.
“We’re all winners at this point, but we just need to keep progressing,” the coach stressed.
The Blue Raiders open their season on the road at Sevier County.
McMINN COUNTY: Bo Cagle is starting his 10th season as the head coach for the Cherokees and he’s changing the offense with intentions on finishing better than last year’s 3-6 record.
“We’re changing to a Wing T and that has me excited, but we’re just trying to do what’s best for the kids we have. We’re deep at running back and Brad Hayes will be our starting quarterback, but we have a chance to win and do well if we execute and do things right,” Cagle expressed.
“We’re smaller and quicker on the offensive line, but we have the fewest kids out I can remember. We have good depth at running back, offensive line and receiver, but not at quarterback.
“We’re not a finesse team, but we’re rough and tough. I don’t have to worry about them playing hard on Friday night as they’re totally vested in our program,” Cagle added.
The Cherokees open on the road at McMinn Central.
OOLTEWAH: The Owls had one of the best defensive units around last year and they have a lot of veteran players to replace, but there are plenty of outstanding athletes just waiting for their chance to shine on Friday night.
Ooltewah beat Rhea County in the regular season, but lost to the Golden Eagles in the second round of the playoffs to finish at 10-3 overall.
“We’re much younger than we’ve been in recent years and we lost a lot of experienced players, but we still have high expectations. We’ve had a great summer, but still have a lot of work to do. We’ll be counting on a lot of young men who haven’t been in this position before,” said coach Mac Bryan on Tuesday.
“We have pretty good team speed and we’re deeper at running back than ever, but we’re searching for depth on the defensive line and we’ll have all new starters at linebacker.
“We are part of a balanced region and I know there will be a lot of close games. Everything depends on how healthy we can stay, but we like where we are right now,” Bryan added.
Ooltewah will travel to Murfreesboro for its season opener on August 20 against Riverdale at MTSU.
RHEA COUNTY: The further teams go into the playoffs, the better the competition becomes and nobody knows that any better than coach Mark Pemberton and the ever-proud Golden Eagles.
Reaching the semifinals for the second straight year was a wonderful thing, but that’s not good enough in Evensville and Pemberton is hoping to take that next step this fall.
“We’ll continue to knock and hope to have another run, but we don’t have a lot of depth,” the third-year Rhea County coach began.
“We only have 15 seniors and 28 juniors, so we’ll try to mix it up on offense and we’ll rotate on defense. We’re bigger up front than we’ve been in a while and we’re blessed to have a couple of running backs who gained more than 1,000 yards each last year,” he said in reference to Cody Bice and Mason Stephenson.
Rhea County beat Campbell County, Farragut and Ooltewah in the playoffs last year before losing 42-28 to Sevier County. The 2016 season will open at Baylor on Aug. 19.
SODDY DAISY: Things have slowly but surely gotten better since Justin Barnes took over as coach and the Trojans enjoyed their first winning season last fall since 2010 as they finished 7-4 overall after losing to Oak Ridge in the first round of the playoffs.
Soddy Daisy graduated it two best players on offense and leading tackler on defense, but there are still guys on the roster who can make exciting things happen on Friday night.
“Last year was our first winning season since 2010 and that has been a great motivation for us. We’re hoping to take the next step,” said Barnes.
“We have five returning starters on offense and six on defense, but we’ll have some kids who have never been on the field before. Our biggest question mark is at running back. It’s tough replacing a guy like Christian Bell, so that may be by committee.
“Justin Cooke will be our starting quarterback. He’s a dual threat and he’s our trigger man. Ty Boeck returns as the leading receiver. We have four returning starters on our defensive line, so we have the foundation for a fine football team. We just want to put the most explosive players on the field that we have,” Barnes added.
The Trojans open at Red Bank on Aug. 19 and have another road game at Central before the home opener against Cleveland on Sept. 2.
WHITE COUNTY: If any coach in this region has his work cut out for him, it’s White County’s Jerry Lowery.
He’s the newest head coach for the Warriors and there’s no pressure as he’s inherited a team that went 2-8 last fall and has only had two winning seasons in the last 30 years.
“We’re going through a lot of firsts right now, but we’re just trying to change the culture at White County. We’ve always been known as a basketball school and our starting quarterback last year decided to focus only on basketball, so we don’t have any idea who that starter will be,” Lowery said.
“We’re just trying to make it fun and competitive, but we have a lot of work to do. And I’m hoping that we’ll have a good punter,” he added.
The Warriors open at home on August 19 against Monterey.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)