DISTRICT 6-A AT A GLANCE
Team on the rise: With 17 starters returning from a team that advanced to the second round and several talented transfers, Signal Mountain appears poised to take over as the team to beat.
Nightmare schedule: Eight of Marion County’s regular-season opponents advanced to the playoffs last year, including two that played for state titles, and the Warriors must travel to both Signal Mountain and South Pittsburg within the district.
Dream schedule: Four of South Pittsburg’s first five games are at home and the Pirates get to host district foes Signal Mountain and Marion County, as well as nondistrict rival Boyd-Buchanan and 4A foe Central.
Best game: South Pittsburg and Signal Mountain are likely to begin the season ranked among the state’s top five teams in their respective classifications, and their game at South Pittsburg on Sept. 17 could decide the district title as it did last year.
Biggest shoes to fill: South Pittsburg quarterback Terrell Robinson accounted for more than 3,000 total yards as well as starting at free safety, winning the state’s Mr. Football award and guiding the Pirates to the 1A title game. He is now at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and senior Travis Millard takes over.
Playoff bound: Signal Mountain (2A), South Pittsburg (1A), Marion County (2A).
There appears to be a shift in power in one of the toughest small-school districts in the state. While Marion County and South Pittsburg each owns four state championships and Lookout Valley has averaged eight wins the last four seasons, second-year program Signal Mountain is the preseason pick of league coaches as the team to beat.
“There’s no doubt we’re all chasing Signal Mountain at this point,” said South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider, whose program has won three straight league titles and has advanced to at least the state quarterfinals in 11 of the last 17 seasons. “They’re by far the most talented team in the district. We saw that when we played them in a passing league game. Other than them, it’s a pretty tight race for the rest of us.”
Signal Mountain returns 17 starters from a team that won 10 games and advanced to the second round of the Class 2A playoffs in its varsity debut. That experience and the addition of several talented transfers have expectations soaring for the Eagles.
Among those returning are senior quarterback Hogan Whitmire, who threw for 22 touchdowns and more than 1,900 yards last season, as well as linebacker Gervell Morgan (6-foot, 207) and two-way lineman Will Sawyer (6-4, 250). Speedy Donnie Garner headlines the infusion of new talent that transferred in.
“Kids are going to want to come here because it’s a nice new school and the team is winning, so they want to be a part of that,” Eagles coach Bill Price said. “We’re a new school so we’re going to have transfers, and we needed them just to compete in our district.
“I’d rather be picked first than last any day. But that’s just on paper. It doesn’t mean anything once the season starts. We know there are really high expectations for us this year, but I don’t see how anybody can pick us over South Pittsburg.”
The Pirates return 11 starters from last year’s 1A state runners-up, including all-state running back Raquis Hale (5-11, 180), who rushed for more than 1,200 yards. While the rest of the backfield is relatively inexperienced, the Pirates also have four offensive-line starters back, including Jakoby Reynolds (6-2, 210) and Cody Wordlaw (6-0, 280). And this senior class has known success, having gone 38-4 the last three years.
Two years removed from a trip to the semifinals, Marion County was hit hard by graduation and returns just seven starters, none in the offensive backfield. Sophomore Matt Zeman (5-11, 190) takes over at quarterback, and the coaches are excited about his potential. Most likely to share carries are running backs Brandon Gibbs (6-2, 190) and Derek Tucker (5-11, 225).
Staff Photo by Allison Kwesell/Chattanooga Times Free Press Quarterback Hogan Whitmire looks to hand off the ball during practice at Signal Mountain High School on Monday.
“The great thing is the veer is designed so that you don’t have to have unbelievable athletes to beat people,” Warriors coach Troy Boeck said. “We’ll use the group from two years ago as an example of how you can be successful as a team even without any superstars.
“We’re not in a position to go out and get kids we need like some of the teams in our district. I wish I had seven or eight transfers, but that’s just not the case here.”
Whitwell started last season winning four of its first five games before stepping into district play.
“We played pretty well against two nondistrict 1A teams that made the playoffs, but we didn’t win a single district game,” said Tigers coach Dan Tierney, who has 12 players who have never played at the varsity level. “We’re still trying to develop a mindset that we can compete against most of the teams in our district.
“I really believe we play in the toughest small-school district in the state.”
Lookout Valley has won 40 games and made the playoffs each of the last four years, but the 22 players on the roster are by far the fewest in Tony Webb’s seven seasons with the program. Running back Terrance Marbury (5-8, 182) is one of only three seniors and will be counted on heavily to keep the playoff streak going.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...