GRACE ACADEMY GOLDEN EAGLES
Coach: Bob Ateca (3-7 here)
Returning starters (O/D/K): 8/8/0
Remember these names: A year stronger and wiser, quarterback Josh Smith (Jr., 6-0, 175) returns to use the pass-catching talents of receivers Corey Nelson (Sr., 6-4, 184) and Louis Savard (Sr., 6-0, 175). Running back/linebacker Cooper Wittmen (Sr., 5-11, 205) brings a physical style to the offense, and Luke Rogers (Sr., 6-0, 215) will be a two-way starter on the line.
Will be a memorable year if: The Golden Eagles can gain some confidence early. Grace doesn’t face a team that had a winning record until the fourth game of the season, so early confidence could lead to an upset or two later, and a playoff berth.
Aug. 19 Notre Dame
Aug. 26 at Cannon County
Sept. 2 Sweetwater
Sept. 9 at Lookout Valley
Sept. 16 Boyd-Buchanan*
Sept. 30 Copper Basin*
Oct. 7 at Marion County
Oct. 14 Harriman
Oct. 21 at Grundy County
Oct. 28 at Silverdale Baptist*
* District 5-A game
While his college athletic future likely is in basketball, Corey Nelson knew he had to get back on the football field. Grace Academy’s senior receiver got hurt in last year’s season opener against Notre Dame, breaking a bone in his foot and dislocating his ankle so badly that there was ligament damage.
But the 6-foot-4, 180-pound Nelson was so determined to bounce back quickly that he missed just four basketball games and wound up averaging 16 points per game for the Golden Eagles. Although a little apprehensive during spring football practice, he has overcome any lingering doubts about his recovery during preseason scrimmages.
“He had three touchdowns in our first scrimmage and looked as good as ever,” Grace coach Bob Ateca said. “You could tell early on that he was a little concerned, but after a few days those fears were behind him. He’s back to being the impact player we knew he can be.
“We’re a run-first team, but to do what we want to, we need to have that threat who can stretch the field vertically and keep the defense from stacking the box with more than seven. Without Corey last year we didn’t have that threat and our offense was never the same. He’s a huge part of our offense. We know we can throw it over the top to him and he’s a threat to make a big play.”
Four of the Golden Eagles’ first six games are at home, and their first three opponents all had losing records last season. The return of Nelson as well as young players who took their lumps but gained valuable experience last year could equal a return to the playoffs.
“I believe we can be that good this year,” Nelson said. “We have good chemistry as a team, and what really helps is having coaches willing to take time to work and make us better.
“Once I step on the field, I really don’t think much about the injury anymore. I know if I did it would make me play differently, and I just want to go out there and not worry about anything — just play. I’ve played football since I was 5 years old, so I knew I had to get back out there.”
Besides Nelson, the Golden Eagles return eight starters on both sides of the ball, including junior quarterback Josh Smith (6-0, 175), receiver Louis Savard (6-0, 175) and running back/linebacker Cooper Wittmen (5-11, 205). Also back is Luke Rogers (6-0, 215), a two-way starter on the line.
“It makes a big difference when you can call the kids by name and not just by number,” Ateca said. “They understand the basics of our offense and defense and know the expectations and how to accomplish the things we need to to be a better football team.
“It only helps when you have that much experience back, and especially a talent like Corey.”
Through the first three seasons of varsity competition, Grace Academy had not won more than six games in a single year. But thanks to dual-threat senior quarterback Josh Blake, the Golden Eagles proved to be one of the area’s toughest 1A teams to defend in 2008. Blake routinely rushed and threw for more than 100 yards in games, helping Grace average more than 40 points through its first nine games. In the season finale, with the region championship on the line, Grace trailed perennial power South Pittsburg by less than a touchdown in the fourth quarter before the Pirates eventually pulled away.
Grace still earned the right to host a first-round playoff game for the first time in program history, but with all-stater Blake — who had totaled more than 2,000 all-purpose yards — out with an injury, the Golden Eagles lost narrowly. However, that 7-4 season still is the high-water mark for Grace’s young program.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having 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, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...