Ooltewah, Cleveland Picked At Top Of District 5-AAA Football

East Hamilton Could Surprise A Few Folks Along The Way

Wednesday, August 6, 2014 - by John Hunt

Ooltewah and Cleveland are the early-season favorites to win the District 5-AAA football race if predictions at Wednesday’s media day are any indication.

The Owls and Blue Raiders finished in a three-way tie with East Hamilton last year as all finished with identical 5-1 district records.

  But that was then and this is now, so what happened last year has very little bearing to what may happen when the season starts on August 22.

Cleveland and Ooltewah both received six first-place votes in the media poll, but Cleveland got the top spot with 89 points.  Ooltewah was next with 88 while East Hamilton was third with 74.

McMinn County, Bradley, Walker Valley and Soddy Daisy followed.

Ooltewah got five of the seven first-place votes in the coaches poll, so the Owls are number one with 46 points and Cleveland second with 37.  East Hamilton is again third.

The rest of the poll includes Bradley, McMinn County, Walker Valley and Soddy Daisy.

All seven coaches got a chance to preview their team and what they expect as the new season approaches.  It was a unanimous statement that developing depth and limiting injuries will be the key for them all.

“It is what it is, but all of that is based on what we did last year,” Cleveland coach Ron Crawford said afterward.

“We still have to prove ourselves, but we’ll do our best to live up to those expectations.  They haven’t passed out the championship trophy yet,” he added.

“It will be a very close race, just like last year, but everything has to do with injuries,” Ooltewah coach Mac Bryan responded to his team being picked at the top.

“There’s no question we want to win and I feel like we have the talent to be a pretty good football team, but if we don’t play well, we’ll get beat.  We just have to limit our mistakes and be ready for a battle every Friday night,” he added.

Here in alphabetical order are those seven teams and what their coaches had to say.  Those two polls will be listed at the end.

BRADLEY CENTRAL: The Bears are looking to improve on last year’s 5-6 record.  Bradley ended the year with five losses in its final six games, including a 42-21 defeat against Maryville in the first round of the playoffs.

Coach Damon Floyd has four returning starters on both sides of the ball and the Bears will be breaking in a new quarterback in sophomore Cole Copeland, but the strength will be the offensive line.

Daniel Clark may be the best player on the team and will be counted on as a returning starter at wide receiver and strong safety.  Clark had 38 catches for more than 500 yards a year ago and he had 45 tackles on defense, including five for lost yardage.

“Daniel will be our big-play guy this year and we have another Copeland at quarterback,” Floyd said as the leadoff speaker.

“Cole brings a lot of positives to the position and he has plenty of ability to play quarterback.  Our offensive line is our strength.  We have some good players at our skill positions, but most are pretty inexperienced.  We’ve got to get better fast as we play in a tough district and we also have a tough non-district schedule.  We have to stay healthy,” Floyd concluded.

The Bears open at home against Polk County on Aug. 22 while other non-district games include Riverdale, Hixson and Signal Mountain in the next three weeks.

CLEVELAND:  The Blue Raiders had an outstanding season in 2013 as they finished at 10-4 overall.  However, several key players have moved on, so the Cleveland team has a new set of challenges.

Cleveland has six returning starters on offense and three on defense, but the biggest challenge for coach Crawford will be finding the effort they displayed a year ago.

“We’ve played a lot of close games in my two years at Cleveland and we’ve been fortunate to win most of them, but things could go either way this year.  We’re down on numbers and we lost some outstanding players from last year,” Crawford nodded.

Replacing quarterback Austin Herink will be tough, but senior Austin Massey has jumped from linebacker to the QB and should do okay.  He’s  6-2 and 235, so he’s certainly big enough to handle the job and he has a strong arm.

“We graduated two guys who had more than 1,000 receiving yards, but our passing game should be solid.  Our running backs and our offensive line will  be our strength, but survival  will be the key for us.  To be good, we need to be more consistent and we haven’t been so far,” the third-year head coach said matter of factly.

T.J. Parker picked up more than 1,200 yards on the ground a year ago while Raekwon Bunion added almost 800 yards and was outstanding at defensive corner.  They could make life tough for opposing defenses.

Four offensive linemen return, including  John Gaither at center and Koran Kennedy at tackle.  Kennedy is also outstanding at linebacker and is a four-year starter. He could be a huge key to Cleveland’s success on both sides of the ball.

The Blue Raiders open their season on Thursday, Aug. 21 with McCallie at Finley Stadium.  Other non-district foes include Wilson Central, Cookeville and Knoxville West.

EAST HAMILTON: The Hurricanes lost some talented players to graduation and many don’t figure these guys to be a contender for district honors, but if you know coach Ted Gatewood, you know that anything is possible with this team.

The Hurricanes advanced to the third round of the playoffs last year, but a painful loss to Cleveland ended their season at 10-3.   But this is a new season and Gatewood’s hopes are as high as normal for a team that has really developed into a powerhouse in a relatively-short time of existence.

East Hamilton has nine returning starters, including four on offense.  Sophomore Nick Woods has emerged as the starting quarterback and he should be well protected as center Demetrius Morgan is a four-year starter.  At 6-3 and 380, he’s also one of the biggest and strongest players in the district.

“We try to add a few new wrinkles every year, but we’re just trying to find a way for us to get better.  There are no off weeks in this district.  We’re young in places, but these guys have been working hard and have been active in the off-season,” Gatewood said with confidence.

“Nick Woods is just a sophomore, but he has the ability to make all the throws and he has good feet.  He’s also patient, which is a big asset at that position.

“We feel good about our receivers as we have good depth there, but we also have good experience on defense.  That will be the key for us,” Gatewood concluded.

The Hurricanes open at home against Signal Mountain on Aug. 22.  Other non-district games will include Dobyns-Bennett, Riverdale and Rhea County.

McMINN COUNTY: The Cherokees missed the playoffs last season, but coach Bo Cagle is hoping his team can return to the postseason in 2014.

McMinn was 4-6 a year ago, but hopes are high that a solid group of a dozen seniors can provide the leadership so they have a chance in the post-season.

“The key for us will be how quickly our young guys grow up, but this is probably the best group of kids I’ve ever been associated with,” Cagle said in a serious tone.

“We have six returning starters on offense, including four on the line, while we have three on defense.  We lost all four of our receivers.  We have a lot of good ones there, but they’re all sophomores.  We don’t have a lot of experience on defense.

“The Lord willing, we’ll be able to kick an extra point this year as a soccer player named Liam O’Malley has decided to kick for us.  We still have no clue who our punter will be, but at least we’ll be able to kick an extra point,” Cagle laughed.

“We just want to get better each week and to give ourselves a chance to win,” the veteran coach concluded.

Senior Corbin Powers return as the starting quarterback and is looking to go out with a bang after passing for more than 1,000 yards last year and rushing for an additional 800.  Junior D.J. Kimpson , who didn’t start until midway through last year, added more than 600 yards on the ground and should have a big year as well.

The Cherokees open with McMinn Central on Aug. 22 with other non-district foes including McCallie, Alcoa and Oak Ridge.

OOLTEWAH: The Owls will be looking for a new quarterback, but there’s plenty of experience returning on defense, so the team in Red should be just fine. 

Ooltewah has five returning starters on offense, but most replace three reliable linemen.  However, with nine returning starters on defense, things are looking good from that perspective.

“Most of our experience is on defense where we have all three linebackers and our entire secondary back,” said coach Bryan.

“We lost our quarterback, but Kelvin Leon is a senior and London Elrod is a junior.  They should both be okay, but neither have ever started a game under the lights.

“The key for us is staying healthy and we have to keep getting better.  We think we have the opportunity to have a good team, but we have to bring our ‘A’ game every Friday night,” Bryan concluded.

The Owls host Brainerd for their season opener on Aug. 22 while other non-district games include Siegel, Tyner and Dobyns-Bennett.  Ooltewah was 9-3 a year ago, losing to East Hamilton in the second round of the playoffs.

SODDY DAISY:  Second-year coach Justin Barnes must feel like the Rodney Dangerfield of District 5-AAA.  All he wants is a little respect, but he knows that his team is the one who dictates that.

The Trojans started off on the right foot last year as they beat Hixson on the road for Barnes’ first win.  However, things went downhill in a hurry as they lost eight of their next nine games.

Barnes is hoping that things will be better this fall.

“Last year didn’t go so well, especially on the defensive side of the ball.  We’re trying to be better tacklers this year as we’re looking for a lot of improvement.  We also want to improve our running game as we’ve got to make those short-yardage, third-down conversions,” the former Red Bank and UTC quarterback expressed.

Senior Hunter Maynor returns as the starting quarterback after passing for more than 1,700 yards last year.  He has a host of talented receivers in seniors Levi Thornton, Blake Smith and Logan Sutherland while junior Tre Carter may just be the best of the group.

“Our passing game will be our strength on offense while we still have questions at running back.  But we do have big expectations and we feel like we can be successful.

“One thing about these guys is they don’t quit, but we just need to limit our mistakes.  We have to learn how to take that next step and not be satisfied with being just good enough,” Barnes concluded.

The Trojans open at home on Aug. 22 against Hixson while other non-district games include Red Bank, Tyner and Rhea County.

WALKER VALLEY: Coach Glen Ryan is like Soddy Daisy’s Barnes when it comes to respect as his Mustangs are looking to improve on last year’s 4-6 record, including 1-5 in 5-AAA.

“We want to be part of the top five instead of the bottom two, but we feel good about where we are right now.  We still have a long way to go with a lot of work to be done, but we’re stronger and faster than we’ve ever been.  The only problem is that all these other teams are too,” Ryan laughed.

“We’ll spread the ball around on offense as we have good depth at running back and receiver, but they’re still young.  We’re thin on the offensive line, but we have a good group battling for starting positions, so we hope to be okay there.

“We are really inconsistent right now and we have to be consistent to be good.  We’ve changed to the spread offense, so we’re looking for bigger and better things this fall,” Ryan added.

Josh Jones is a junior who’ll be the starting quarterback after starting the final game last fall.  “He started that last game, but he’s had a good off-season.  He’s gotten stronger and he has a lot more confidence,” the coach concluded.

The Mustangs will host District 6-AA favorite East Ridge on Aug. 22 before going to Sequoyah the following week.  Other non-district foes include Rhea County and Polk County.

COACHES POLL (First place votes in parenthesis)

  1. Ooltewah (5)   46

  2. Cleveland (2)    37

  3. East Hamilton  32

  4. Bradley Central  28

  5. McMinn Co.   27

  6. Walker Valley  16

  7. Soddy Daisy   10

MEDIA POLL

  1. Cleveland (6)  89

  2. Ooltewah  (6)  88

  3. East Hamilton (2) 74

  4. McMinn Co.  52

  5. Bradley Central 47

  6. Walker Valley  25

  7. Soddy Daisy  18

(Email John Hunt at nomarathonmoose@comcast.net)


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