Staff Photo by Tim Barber
Mark Mariakis, Ridgeland head coach.
Region 6-AAA at a Glance
* Team on the rise: LaFayette went from 1-9 to 6-4 in Perry Swindall's first season as coach, and the Ramblers return a solid group of skill players. The offensive line and a defense led by linebackers Ben Gillespie and Koran Dyer will determine how far the Ramblers go.
* Nightmare schedule: Ringgold begins with Murphy, N.C., which went 10-0 in the regular season last year. The Tigers host improved Adairsville in week two before traveling to South Paulding, which beat them last year, and hosting 6-AAA South's Central-Carroll, a 2008 playoff team. There also are road games with rivals Ridgeland and Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe.
* Dream schedule: Though not easy, Ridgeland gets to play nearly all its tough games at home -- Calhoun, Cedartown, Ringgold and LaFayette.
* Best game: LaFayette at Ridgeland on Oct. 30 might well be for the sub-region title.
* Biggest shoes to fill: Receiver Mike Bowman stretched the field for Ridgeland a year ago, taking pressure off the running game. Coach Mark Mariakis is hoping 6-foot-3 senior Dewaun Harrison can help keep defenses honest this year.
* Playoff bound: LaFayette and Ridgeland from the north sub-region, Carrollton and Cartersville from the south.
Role-playing isn't usually associated with football, but in Georgia Region 6-AAA, teams and players integrating into new roles is the major theme heading into the 2009 season.
At LaFayette, which won four games in three seasons from 2005 to 2007, is coping with being the preseason favorite. Ridgeland's defending region champions have returning stars in new positions, while Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe coach Todd Windham will maximize his Warriors' chances by playing his best players both ways.
However, no new role may be more important than the lesser one planned for Martez Eastland. Ringgold rode its star running back to within one game of reaching the playoffs a year ago, but coach Robert Akins believes his team has a better chance of taking that next step if his 6-foot, 235-pound college prospect has a reduced role and therefore is fresher at the end of the season.
"I really want to give him less carries, and I know that sounds strange, but he took such a beating last year that we need to be able to rely on other people," said Akins, who used Eastland at quarterback, running back, linebacker and safety in 2008. "That will be huge for his health. As we get later in the seaon, he's got to be fresh."
Akins' first chore is to find a quarterback. Sophomore Josh Moore and junior Colton Cross were neck and neck as training camp entered its second week. The Tigers also have good depth in the backfield, including sophomores Shonte Anderson and Mark Fairbanks and senior fullback Thomas Guinn.
Defensively, Akins plans to use Eastland more at safety, where he won't be hit as often as he was at linebacker last season. Adding Virginia transfer Collins Womack to returners Fairbanks and Matthew Crownover, another sophomore, the linebackers will be a strength.
"We've got a good core of guys, and even though we don't return a lot of starters (four on each side), we have better depth," Akins said. "Martez will still get his touches. I'd be stupid if he didn't, but if we can keep him fresh, it will help us late in games and the season."
The Tigers figure to be in a tight battle with LaFayette, Ridgeland and LFO in the north sub-region. The Ramblers were 6-2 in Perry Swindall's first season as head coach before losing their final two games. The team returns 2,000-yard passer Josh Morgan and three receivers -- major college recruit Dimitri Miles and strong complements in Bowe Coffman and Tyler Burse -- in a spread attack that averaged more than 20 points per game a year ago.
Swindall said the sudden ascent to favorite won't distract his team.
"I think we'll be better, and I'm glad people appreciate our effort," he said. "We want to be a quality program. That's done not only by the results on the field, but how you carry yourself and reprsent yourself. We were this close to being 8-2.
"It was very satsifying to go 6-4 in that we laid a foundation to being successful and getting the first winning season in years. Not making the playoffs last year gives us something more to shoot for this year."
Ridgeland lost over 90 percent of its offensive production from last year's nine-win team, giving the Panthers more roles to fill than any other sub-region team.
"Everyone seems to have a lot of good people back, so they'll all be better," coach Mark Mariakis said. "We've got good people too, but we've not got a lot of experience."
Senior Dominique Wilkins is the leader to replace Carlan Bowman at quarterback, while Devin Bowman and Deonte Marsh will get the bulk of carries. Two defensive stars, linebacker DeVaughn Buchanan and safety Dewaun Harrison, also will play some offense at fullback and receiver, respectively.
Playing both ways will be in style at LFO. Quarterback Cody Commons will get time in the secondary, and running back LaGreg Burns also will start at linebacker. Defensive end Derrick Laney will use his 6-foot-3 frame as a red-zone target at tight end. They are three of at least 10 players who will play on both sides of the ball.
"This is the first year we've looked at playing a lot of the guys both ways, but we have to put our best players on the field," Windham said. "This region is so close, just like last year, and it will likely come down to a play or two. That's why we want those guys on the field."
Continuing to build is the key word for the sub-region's other two teams, Southeast Whitfield and Heritage. Southeast's Raiders have gone from 35 players to 110 this summer in just one season under coach David Crane. Though the playoffs might be out of reach this year, a strong group of sophomores and freshmen have the program looking up.
Heritage when through a 0-10 inaugural season and, as for Southeast, the strength of the program lies with the younger classes. Nearly 80 percent of the Generals roster is sophomores and freshmen.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...