OOLTEWAH — On the cusp of a new high school pigskin season, the District 5-AAA coaches were singing a familiar tune during Wednesday’s annual media day luncheon.
“This (the district race) could go any way this year,” declared Cleveland High head coach Ron Crawford, whose Blue Raiders edged out Ooltewah by a point for the top spot in the preseason media poll, but we second to the Owls according to the coaches’ voting.
“Last year was a three-way tie for first and it could be the same this year,” he added. “It’s not just two or three teams that are capable of winning this thing, but any of the teams can win it.”
Cleveland went 10-4 and made a playoff run to the state semifinals last fall. East Hamilton finished 10-3, falling to the Raiders in the quarterfinals, while Ooltewah ended up 2013 with a 9-3 record, falling to the Hurricanes in the second round of postseason play. All three teams went 5-1 in regular season league play and were ranked in the Top 10 in the final AP state poll.
“There’s no doubt this is one of the toughest districts in the state,” proclaimed East Hamilton coach Ted Gatewood, who’s Hurricanes got the top 5-AAA seed going into the playoffs last fall due to the tiebreaker process. “Every week is a tough challenge.”
“You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game every Friday night,” echoed Ooltewah head man Mac Bryan. “Several of last year’s district games came down to the final series. I expect it to be the same this season.”
It’s not just the local coaches and media that expect a dogfight for the 5-AAA crown, as coaches across the state ranked Ooltewah ranked fifth and Cleveland sixth in one preseason Class 5A statewide poll.
A total of 14 area media members present for the annual luncheon gave the Raiders 89 total points and the Owls 88, with both teams receiving a half dozen first place votes.
The coaches leaned more toward Ooltewah with the Owls taking five of the seven top votes and 46 overall points, while the Raiders got the other two first place picks and had a total of 37 points.
East Hamilton, which was third in both polls, got the other two No. 1 nods, and had a total of 74 points from the media and 32 from the coaches.
Bradley Cental (5-6 last year) nipped McMinn County (4-6) 28-27 for fourth place in the coaches’ opinion, but the Cherokees had a 52-47 advantage in the media poll. Walker Valley (4-6) and Soddy-Daisy (3-7) were sixth and seventh respectively in both polls.
While many standout players return in the district this season, five of the seven offenses will be under the field direction of new quarterbacks. Only McMinn County’s Corbin Powers (1,692 yards, 15 TDs) and Hunter Maynard (1,707 yards, 16 TDs) at Soddy-Daisy return under center for their teams.
Coach Crawford is turning the reins over to senior Austin Massey, who “has a different skill set” than current Middle Tennessee State walk-on Austin Herink, who led the district with 3,421 yards and 35 aerial TDs last year. “Austin (Massey) is a tough kid physically and mentally. He’s been our ‘Sam’ linebacker on defense, but he’ll only play offense this season.”
Bradley head coach Damon Floyd will turn the pigskin over to a very familiar name — Copeland. Cole, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, “is bigger than his older brother Bryce, who was a four-year (Bear QB) starter, but not as fast,” according to his coach. “He has a lot of potential.”
Copeland’s dad Brian and uncle Brent were also Bear QBs, while his uncle Chad was a wide receiver. The Copeland family’s athletic skills aren’t limited to the gridiron, as they are well known for their basketball skills as well. Cole’s sister Brooke is currently at the University of Florida on a hoops scholarship while Bryce is playing at Lee University.
After he started the final game of last season, junior Josh Jones takes over the new Walker Valley offense full time this season.
“We are coming into the 21st century and changing our offense from the Wing-T to the ‘spread’ this season,” related Mustang head coach Glen Ryan. “We hope to have a strong running game to go with the it. This is a big change for us, but the kids are excited about and Josh will do a good job running it.”
“The kids have made the transition well and are picking up the offense,” Ryan added. “It’s fun to run and allows us to get the ball into the hands of six or seven different players.”
Ooltewah and East Hamilton are having to replace veteran QBs Brody Binder (2,110, 20 TDs) and Hunter Moore (2,982, 22 TDs) with players who have had little or no Friday night playing time.
The Owls do have plenty of experience on the other side of the football, with nine defensive starters returning, while the Hurricanes have just four veterans returning on offense, including running backs Matt Milita and David Whiteside, and five on defense.
Cleveland will counter with both of their ball carriers — TJ Parker and Raekwon Bunion, who combined for more than 2,000 yards last season — running behind four returning O-linemen, but only have a trio of defensive starters returning.
Bradley has four returning starters on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
“Our offensive line will be a strength with two guys back, and a total of six seniors competing for the five spots,” assessed Coach Floyd. “Overall, we are young and we’ve got to stay healthy.”
Walker Valley returns four defensive starters and just three on offense. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do. We’ve taken steps to get better, but we’re inconsistent right now,” remarked Coach Ryan.
Soddy brings back seven offensive starters and five on defense. “We had a lot of young guys get plenty of experience last year, so hopefully that will pay off this year,” commented second-year Trojan coach Justin Barnes.
McMinn has a half dozen returning on the offense, including four linemen, but just three on the defensive side of the ball. “We only have 12 seniors on the team, and we lost all of our receivers and secondary,” related Cherokee chief Bo Cagle.
The 2014 season kicks off Aug. 15 and 16 with the annual jamboree at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, before the real games begin Aug. 21 and 22.