A seldom seen media come-together happened Friday at the Anniston Country Club in Calhoun County for the 2nd Annual Calhoun County Quarterback Club’s sponsored High School Football Media Day.
Once again, the Quarterback Club did an excellent job putting the event together and creating an environment that was close to perfect for media members to quiz all the county’s head coaches and key players about the upcoming season.
Clearly, corona virus was the top topic throughout the day. Our take-away on that is everybody to a man is thrilled that we’re playing on schedule and nobody has a grasp on how the season might unfold. Very little was offered in regard to the number of fans that will be in the stands when the season kicks off August 20th and 21st. Never before has high school football faced such a “we’ll figure it out as we go” scenario.
SAKS WILDCATS – Coach Jonathan Miller spent most of his time in front of the media speaking on the effects prior season injuries have plagued his team. A bright spot coming into 2020 is the transfer of speedster Rod Elston over to Saks and the contribution he could make on both sides of the ball. Miller sized up his team’s region (3A-Region 5) as the “SEC West of high school football”. Key for the Wildcats will once again being able to stay healthy and for some of the younger players who got some playing time last season to step into key roles and contribute.
OXFORD YELLOW JACKETS – The defending 6A State Champs’ collective confidence was clear on stage Friday as Coach Keith Etheredge, two-sport star QB Trey Higgins and possibly the state’s top WR Roc Taylor fielded all questions with ease. Everyone knows Oxford will have a huge target on their back and as a result, most weeks will get everyone’s best shot. Etheredge welcomes that challenge. “We want to play the best every week,” he said. The Jackets have a ton of talent returning off last year’s championship squad, but they’ll find region play much easier than in 2019 with their move over to 6A-Region 7 Frankly, we don’t see anybody in the region that can put up much of a challenge and we expect Oxford to be undefeated in region play. When talking about what everyone should expect from the Jackets offensively, Etheredge quipped, “We may throw it 35 times a game.” That was followed by Higgins adding, “To me when we go to 4 (Roc Taylor’s #), that’s 7.” We give credit to Etheredge for putting together a super tough non-region schedule that should prepare his team for another deep 6A playoff run. The Jackets will open at defending 7A champion Thompson on Saturday, August 22nd, then travel to Pleasant Grove to face the 5A state runner-up the following Friday. They close out the season with the 7A state runners-up from Central-Phoenix City visiting Lamar Field. We don’t see Oxford going undefeated, but we definitely see them in the mix to defend their 6A state title.
WEAVER BEARCATS – Coach Justin Taylor handled what might have been the toughest appearance any coach could have with class as he represented a team that went 0-10 in 2019. Taylor openly discussed the challenges of his first season at the helm of Weaver football and the changing of the guard that has taken place there over the past 12 months. Taylor talked about the challenges of fund-raising in his community amid the pandemic and some of the things all teams will face in preparing to play under Covid-19 mandates. It was clear to us how much this coach loves his kids and his new home within the Weaver community. With the history Weaver has in producing quality athletes, combined with Taylor’s “never quit determination”, the Bearcats will likely find a win or two on select Fridays this fall. However, Weaver lives in the ultra-tough 3A-Region 5 where there are no easy nights. Another down side to their schedule is 2020 only gives the Bearcats four home games. We don’t see Weaver going winless again in 2020, but we definitely see improvement coming within the program.
ALEXANDRIA VALLEY CUBS – A great nickname for Coach Todd Ginn would be “old school” because that’s the message he delivered to everyone listening Friday. “When you play Alexandria, you’re going to get hit – hit hard.” Tough, in-your-face football has always been the Alexandria way and Ginn preaches that daily to his players and assistants. Ginn was quick to point out that because his school is one of the smallest in 5A, that’s no excuse when it comes to playing for a championship. Alexandria remains in 5A-Region 6 where they should contend for the region title. If they are to be successful in that goal, they’ll likely have to do it on the road with games at Center Point on 9/4 and at Lincoln on 10/9. There was a lot said about returning All-State Athlete Ronnie Royal. Obviously Ginn wants this 9th grader getting touches. Alexandria has a history of great backfield players and it appears Royal will have the opportunity to add his name to the list with four more seasons ahead of him out in the Valley. We see another solid season for Valley Cub fans. The regular season finale at Lou Scales Stadium with Piedmont could be a classic.
PLEASANT VALLEY RAIDERS – Once again, Coach Jonathan Nix is looking for a formula to get his Raiders over the 5-5 hump. Nix spent most of his opening comments talking about dealing with the challenges of the guidelines associated with Covid-19 . He talked at great length about the need to stay healthy in a region as tough as 3A-Region 5, and how the weight room program at PVHS has greatly helped in a reduction of player injuries. Both players and Nix talked about how Pleasant Valley has been “one game away” from reaching the playoffs over the past two seasons. Nix said he wants to see this year’s senior group lead by action. It appears that once again in 2020, the Raiders will be fighting for the last playoff spot out of 3A-Region 5. A review of their schedule reveals key weeks in making it into the post season as a 9/4 trip to Hokes Bluff, and home games on 9/18 with Wellborn and on 10/2 against Saks.
ANNISTON BULLDOGS – “We’ve made Anniston is a different place now,” was key in Coach Rico White’s opening comments at Media Day. When asked about the announcement from the AHSAA that the season was a go, White said he just ran outside and grabbed a water hose and started shooting it up into the air. White was quick to point out that 4A-Region 4, now in the south, got much tougher with the addition of Munford and Handley. “We’re looking forward to the challenges,” said White. “At Anniston, we’ve come in a set the standard for these kids. It’s not about me, it’s about them. We’ve made the first round two years ago and the semi-finals last year, but that’s not our goal. We’ve got higher expectations. The kids will tell you how Anniston High is a different place.” White seemed really excited when asked about the addition of the Wellborn game to open the season. He added that he wants to see additional opportunities to play area schools like Saks and Oxford. Expect Anniston to once again be a playoff contender, but their degree of success will likely come from how well the Bulldogs can plug the holes on offense created by graduation.
WALTER WELLBORN PANTHERS – The AHSAA’s announcement about the season playing on schedule created a lot of excitement at Walter Wellborn on Wednesday when Coach Jeff Smith told the players their season was actually was going to happen. Wellborn begins 2020 with all their skill players from the 2019 semi-finals run. The question mark will be the vacancies up front created by graduation. “We were off for a long time,” said Jeff Smith. “Just to get the kids out on the field running and cutting is a blessing.”. Jett Smith, the coach’s son enters his senior season at Wellborn. Jett is an all-state performer and plays both QB and LB for the Panthers. Coach Smith talked about the history of great coaches and players in Calhoun County, and about the excitement around the opener on “The Hill” with Anniston. “This game will be good for both communities,” said Smith. “Football means a lot in our community. It means a lot to a lot of people.” Wellborn begins 2020 once again in 3A-Region 5 and should contend for the region title. That quest begins with a key road game at Ohatchee on 9/4 and they’ll likely have to knock off Piedmont at home on 10/23 to finish it off.
DONOHO FALCONS – Coach Mark Sanders opened his appearance at Media Day with a plea to all to wear a mask and do the things necessary to stay healthy so all the kids can half a full season of football. “Football is great for society. I love the game. Our team is looking pretty good right now. We’re returning some good starters on both sides of the ball. We have lost twenty seniors over the past two years which has hurt some.” Donoho remains in 1A-Region 5 where Spring Garden and Appalachian exit and Woodland and Wadley replace them. “Wadley has always had a great program. We’re looking forward to playing them again, “ said Sanders. Donoho lost an all-state RB in Rod Elston with his transfer to Saks but the Falcons return All-State WR Amari Smedley. In regard to the 2020 schedule, the players said they were looking forward to the matchup with 4A White Plains. “This will probably be one of the most interesting season in mankind,” concluded Sanders. We see Donoho as a region contender and back in the playoffs
OHATCHEE INDIANS – Coach Scott Martin opened his appearance at Media Day telling us that “These young men need to get the opportunity that playing football offers.” He went through the team’s routine over the summer. Ohatchee will open practice on August 3rd. The Indians move back up to 3A into Region 5. Martin added, “Ohatchee is still going to be based on a grinding power offense. We’re not going to mess with success. We’ve only lost three regular season games in the past four years. Our guys have a lot to live up to and they’re ready for that challenge.” When asked about the health issues, Martin said, “We’ve spent six weeks social distancing and wearing mask. Ultimately it comes down to the fact that football is a physical game. Somebody’s going to have to make a decision if they’re going to let us play or not play. I hope they make the right decision, which is to let these young men have their season.” Martin also went on to talk about how tough it was to fill this year’s schedule. Apart from the region lineup, Ohatchee has added Munford, Cleburne County and Anniston. Both players, Greg King and Noah Fuller spoke on getting to play their senior seasons. When asked about the decision to start now verses other options, Martin said, “This virus is serious, but I think one of the underlying things is that it’s going to be here. We’re not getting rid of it until we get a vaccine. I think we’re going to do everything we can to learn about virtual learning and do a good job of it. Following the recommendations of the health care officials, I understand why we’ve what we’ve done. We’ve misunderstood flattening the curve. I’m going to push for us to play football and be back in school.” Scott Martin is a proven leader and winner. He’s developed a sound, winning program at Ohatchee. Even with the move back up to 3A, The Indians will be an immediate force in Region 5. They have a very favorable region schedule so it could all come down to the Indians trip back to the Field of Champions to face Piedmont on 10/2. The non-region schedule is tough but should prepare Ohatchee for a solid season that could include another deep post-season run.
JACKSONVILLE GOLDEN EAGLES – The team at Media Day with probably the most questions to answer going into 2020 was Clint Smith’s 4A state runners-up. Graduation cleaned the starters out. Jacksonville lost all eleven starters off the offensive side of the ball. Smith said, “That won’t change expectations at all.” On the health side of things, Smith said, “This is something none of us has been through before. We’re excited to be moving forward and we’ll follow all the guidelines to try and keep everyone safe.” Smith talked about what it’s like to get the extra practice that comes with deep playoff runs. “Those extra weeks do help us, especially getting young guys ready to step in when their time comes to play on Friday nights. We’re replacing 20 starters so it is definitely a big help.” Jacksonville moves into the south part of 4A in Region 4. They’ll face new region opponents in Munford and Handley along with regular region foes from Anniston, White Plains, Cleburne County and Cherokee County. Clint Smith has changed the culture at Jacksonville, and the Golden Eagles have athletes to put on the field. It may take a early stumble or two, but you should expect steady improvement week to week. The Golden Eagles should find one of the region’s four playoff spots.
PIEDMONT BULLDOGS – The defending 3A state champs brought that Piedmont swagger back to the stage at Media Day. When quizzed on the health issues, Smith responded with, “We have a motto at Piedmont that we worry about the things we can control. There are a lot of things going on in the world right now that have me scratching my head. Our workouts have been modified some throughout the summer. The biggest things we’ve missed is the last nine weeks of school weight room work. Our kids know what’s expected of them and they do the things necessary for us to play in late into November or early December.” Piedmont returns many of the players that hoisted the 3A trophy in Auburn last year and we see no reason they won’t enter the season as the 3A pre-season #1 ranked team. When asked about the quality of football in the county, Smith said, “I think it’s probably as good as it’s ever been. I thought last year’s run was special and I don’t see it dropping off any time soon.” On the 2020 team’s upcoming schedule, Smith seems ecstatic. “We have the most ideal schedule I’ve ever seen for any high school football team. The longest bus trip we’ll take over the next two regular seasons is to Wellborn. We’re happy to be playing non-region games with Cenre, where I’m from Week 1 and that’s a game we always want to play. We have Jacksonville again in Week 5 and we were able to add Alexandria for Week 10.” When asked about a road to another 3A title and teams that might be involved, Smith said, “I haven’t even looked at that.” The session ended on a light note with discussion about Coach Smith’s mullet haircut which he quickly said “I hate it!” The “do” is a result of a lost bet with last year’s team on winning the state championship game. In closing, Smith said, “You can’t modify football. I’m just excited that we’re going to have a season. We’re looking forward to another great season. Nobody’s going to give us anything because of last year. We’ve got to work hard to prove ourselves.”
WHITE PLAINS WILDCATS – Last July, Chandler Tyree came to Media Day with less than 24 hours experience on the job as the head coach of the Wildcats. One year later, he knows the lay of the land and has a much greater appreciation of the job in front of him and his 2020 team. Let us not cut corners here. He’s trying to do something that has only been done once in school history. Get the Wildcats into the post season. That will be a tall task for a program that has not been better than 5-5 in a season over the last 17 years. Tyree might just be the right guy and this might just be the right team. He’s got a proven QB returning in Jaden Chatman. Chatman is a playmaker with his feet and his arm. The schedule sets up nicely for the Wildcats. They catch a young and retooling Jacksonville early at home. If they get off to a good start, they could be 3-0 or 2-1 going into that game. The toughest part of region play comes at the end of the year with a trip to Munford on 10/16 and then Handley at home on 10/23. Tyree says he’s excited about the culture change he’s seeing at White Plains. “We have leadership in our seniors. They’re challenging the younger guys, so unlike last year, it’s not just us coaches,” said Tyree. “We have kids out that want to play football. They believe they have the opportunity to do something at White Plains that hasn’t been done in a long time.” In regard to the health issues, Tyree added, “We’re doing everything we can to keep these kids healthy. They want to play football and we owe them that to give them the chance to play.” On the financial side of fundraising, Tyree commented, “it’s definitely been affected. It’s going to be completely different this year. Our supporters have stepped up and made donations.” When asked about what the players have learned as seniors, Chatman said, “You can’t put in enough work. No amount of work is enough to be successful. We just want to do enough to take the next step.” Carson Tyree added, “You can’t settle for less.” The Wildcats face Donoho early, Elmore County mid-season and end on 10/30 at home against Pleasant Valley in non-region play. “I’m tired of hearing 3-7 being a good year. That’s not what we’re here for. We want to make the playoffs. Once you make the dance, anything can happen,” concluded Coach Tyree.
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