Kolten Gibson throwing the ball deep against Oak Ridge during the 2016 Season Play Offs
Rhea County has run with the big dogs, well enough to win last year's Region 4-5A football title, but it likely will take more than a steady gallop for the Eagles to repeat.
While Ooltewah, McMinn County and Cleveland have been bounced up to Region 2-6A, Walker Valley and Soddy-Daisy remain with Rhea's Eagles. And there are newcomers Lenoir City and Knoxville Catholic, the latter of which has been voted the preseason title favorite.
"If Catholic keeps getting those transfers, they'll be unbelievable," offered Rhea County coach Mark Pemberton, who directed Catholic to a state championship in 2008.
Those latest transfers are DeSon Bussell, a receiver from Fort Wayne, Ind. who already has offers from several Big Ten schools, and running back/defensive back Raynoch Thompson Jr., son of the former standout linebacker at Tennessee. They strengthen a team that already has a half-dozen college-committed players, including two-way lineman Cade Mayes, a 6-foot-6, 315-pounder who's pledged to Butch Jones' Volunteers.
"The amount of talent they put on the field is unmatched in the region," said Soddy-Daisy coach Justin Barnes.
It could be a four-way tie for second, although Rhea's rough-and-tumble yet workmanlike style still could lead to a championship.
"I think is will be us and (Catholic) for the championship, but we're going to have to do a lot of work to get to that point," said Pemberton, whose team was 9-3 last year.
Lenoir City is pretty much an unknown to area teams, although the Panthers suffered a lopsided loss at Rhea County in the first round of the 2016 playoffs. They haven't had a winning season since 2012, when they beat Walker Valley in a first-round postseason game before losing to Ooltewah.
Though Soddy-Daisy and Walker Valley are conceding nothing, first glance would have them battling for third and fourth along with road shows in the postseason.
Junior quarterback Zach Pemberton, the Rhea coach's son, and senior running back Christian Simon are among the Eagles' 11 returning starters on a squad that numbers more than 100.
They'll provide the bulk of Rhea's scoring punch.
"Zach will be a bigger part of the offense. He'll be more of a run-pass guy, where last year he was more of a handoff guy," his dad said. "And if Simon stays healthy, he'll have a great year."
The biggest change in the Eagles' wing-T offense will be a shift from the two-tight-end sets to one that will more prominently display the wide receivers.
"We've got some kids we think can help us there," Coach Pemberton said.
Soddy-Daisy's wide-open spread offense returns seven starters, including running back Ty Boeck and receivers Hunter Burke and Beau Blaylock. Too, Jarvis Smith, son of the Trojans' former bruising running back by the same name, has returned after a year in Alabama and will add his talents to the receiver corps.
Sophomore Gavin Chambers and freshman Isaac Barnes will have to grow up quickly as the quarterbacks.
Quarterback maturity is no issue for Walker Valley, where Kolten Gibson returns for his senior season. He holds all of the Mustangs' passing and quarterback rushing records.
The holdover from last season's strong receiving corps is lanky Zeke Westfield, but coach Glen Ryan has lofty expectations for Luke Wallace and Brock Gibson. Too, he has high hopes for Kole Hall, who's stepping in as the primary rusher/receiver out of the backfield.
Drawbacks are on the other side of the ball. While the front four return, the Mustangs are replacing all of their linebackers and defensive backs, and Ryan hinted that underclassmen might wind up manning some of those spots.
Region 4-5A outlook
Team to beat: Knoxville Catholic is a team loaded with college prospects, none more touted than lineman Cade Mayes, son of former Tennessee standout Kevin Mayes and a Vols commitment himself.
Watch out for: Walker Valley has a standout quarterback in Kolten Gibson and has reloaded with receivers. If the Mustangs defense can slow opponents, its offensive cohorts should be able to score handily.
Best game: Rhea County plays at Knoxville Catholic, which was once home to current Rhea coach Mark Pemberton, on Sept. 28.
Dream schedule: While not an easy schedule by any means, Soddy-Daisy faces only one Class 6A team (Bradley Central). Its other nonconference opponents are rivals Red Bank (3-3A favorite) and Hixson (2-4A), East Hamilton (2-4A) and Signal Mountain (3-3A). Region games at home are against Knoxville Catholic and Walker Valley.
Nightmare schedule: Rhea County fans will get their money’s worth. Beyond their region schedule, which includes perennial state power Catholic, the Eagles’ dance card is filled with numerous programs that have been part of the postseason more often than not. Those include Blackman, Ravenwood and Cane Ridge along with Region 2-6A members Bradley Central, McMinn County and Cleveland.
Players to watch: Rhea’s Logan Sullivan (6-4, 310) is one of the region’s bigger linemen, and he’ll be among those paving the way for QB Zach Pemberton (5-11, 170) and R Christian Simon (5-8, 160). Catholic QB Jack Sompayrac (6-2, 190) will operate behind the region’s biggest line, which includes Mayes (6-6, 315), his younger brother Cooper (6-2, 250) and Bryn Tucker (6-5, 300). Irish receivers include Cam Blakely (6-5, 195). Walker Valley’s Gibson is a true dual threat at QB and already holds all of the Mustangs’ passing records. Soddy-Daisy’s Ty Boeck (6-1, 210) is expected to focus on RB and LB, leaving WR and QB duties to others this season. He’ll help the young QBs, as will WRs Hunter Burke (6-4, 180) and Beau Blaylock (5-11, 165).
Predicted order of finish: Knoxville Catholic, Rhea County, Walker Valley, Soddy-Daisy, Lenoir City.
Contact Ward Gossett at email@example.com or 423-757-6288. Follow him on Twitter @wardgossett.