published Friday, August 12th, 2011

State 2A champ Signal in tougher league

District 7-AA at a Glance

• Team on the rise: Chattanooga Christian is mentioned by coaches at several other 7-AA schools as a potential, if not probable, playoff team. The Chargers came close last year, losing a close game at Bledsoe County in the season finale to finish 4-6. "They have a lot of athletes and they can score on anybody. They just need to shore up their defense," Sequatchie County coach Chad Barger said.

• Nightmare schedule: Signal Mountain is moving up in classification and will play district road games at Bledsoe County and Sequatchie, the district's first and second finishers last season and each with a large number of returnees. The Eagles open with Class 4A East Hamilton and then catch District 6-AA favorite Tyner. Their nondistrict opponents also include Blackman, which is listed among the Class 6A favorites, defending Class 1A state champion South Pittsburg and reigning District 5-AA champion Polk County. Blackman and Polk are on the road. Seven of Signal's games are against 2010 playoff teams.

• Dream schedule: In what figures to be an even more competitive season, Sequatchie County gets Bledsoe, Grundy and Signal Mountain at home. The Indians' nonleague schedule includes South Pittsburg but also Meigs County, which has totaled seven wins the past three seasons, and Class 1A teams Marion County and Whitwell.

• Best game: Bledsoe-Sequatchie (Sept. 30) always draws a crowd and Bledsoe coach Jason Reel is anticipating a huge crowd for his Warriors' game with Signal Mountain (Sept. 2), but the district championship may come down to the final week of the regular season when Signal visits Sequatchie (Oct. 28).

• Biggest shoes to fill: Either Hunter Lewis or Hogan Whitmire. Lewis rushed for 1,471 yards as Sequatchie averaged better than 300 rushing yards per game in 2010. Whitmire passed for 2,490 yards and 30 TDs with just four interceptions in Signal Mountain's 14-game march to the Class 2A state title.

• Playoff bound: Signal Mountain, Bledsoe County, Sequatchie County.

Will this be the year that somebody hauls Signal Mountain back down to earth after the Eagles' meteoric climb?

They ran the table last season -- in their second year of varsity competition -- to win the Class 2A state football championship. That followed a 10-2 first season and an unbeaten rookie year as a junior varsity.

But the Eagles have moved up from District 6-A to District 7-AA and will jump two classifications from Class 2A to 4A for the postseason.

"Our goal is still ultimately the same: win a district championship and a state championship," Eagles coach Bill Price said.

Price has driven his team in the preseason, and he hasn't let the energy and focus levels drop.

"These are kids I've had since the beginning of the program, and they know the expectations," he said. "Last year is just that, and we're starting over."

Signal Mountain returns its top two receivers from last year -- Jon Patton (Sr., 6-4, 200) and Will Queen (Sr., 6-1, 190) -- and a talented group of running backs that includes Andrew Price (Sr., 5-8, 175), Zack Bowman (Sr., 6-0, 215) and Mitchell Hall (Sr., 5-9, 180). Price also has four of last year's starting offensive linemen back, including center Jon Evans (Sr., 5-10, 215).

The offensive replacements include quarterback Reese Phillips (Jr., 6-3, 215), and the Eagles added an outstanding transfer in fullback/linebacker Tim McClendon (Sr., 6-2, 240).

"The preparation has to be the same because we're moving into a tougher district and our schedule will be much more difficult," Price said.

That schedule includes nondistrict foes East Hamilton, Tyner, Blackman, South Pittsburg and Polk County.

"You can't deny they're good," Sequatchie County coach Chad Barger said. "They're physical and well-coached, and until somebody knocks them off their roost, everybody is going to pick them No. 1."

Barger, with 13 starters returning, is looking forward to playing the Eagles.

"We have them the last game of the regular season, and I'm hoping that one's for the district title," the Indians' coach said. "I know Bledsoe is going to be good again. They have most everybody back."

Quarterback Cody Holloway (Sr., 6-0, 180) leads 18 returning starters at the Pikeville school. Those also include running backs Brandon Smith (Sr., 5-10, 175) and Holden Boynton (Jr., 6-0, 185) and linemen Jesse Sandell (Jr., 5-11, 275), Tyler Henderson (Sr., 5-10, 205) and Ben Ritchie (Sr., 6-0, 215).

"Each Friday will be very competitive," Bledsoe coach Jason Reel said. "I think it's exciting that Signal Mountain is now in our district. Our kids are excited about playing them early."

The Warriors travel the first two weeks, and their first district and home game is against Signal Mountain on Sept. 2.

Chattanooga Christian has developed more depth to go with receiver/safety Beau Simmons (Sr., 6-3, 205) and quarterback Levi Corbett (Jr., 6-1, 180), Notre Dame has a new offense for a squad dominated by sophomores and freshmen, and Grundy County returns running back Johnny Cook (Sr., 5-10, 195) and lineman Austin Fults (6-3, 330) among 12 starters from 2010.

"Besides Signal Mountain, which I think is the leader, everybody else is fairly equal. Any of the games could go to either opponent," Grundy coach Nick Bryant said.

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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