EAST RIDGE PIONEERS
Coach: Mike Martin (16-14 here; 51-37 overall)
Returning starters (O/D/K): 5/5/0
Remember these names: Shaquille Holland (Sr., 5-4, 135) will be a busy man as a receiver, running back and defensive back for the Pioneers, and quarterback Demetrius Bumpass (Sr., 5-9, 160) and wideout Dominique Strickland (Sr., 6-0, 180) also will be used in the secondary. Other key players include running back/linebacker Deonte Dokes (Sr., 5-10, 180) and offensive lineman Grady Mathews (Jr., 6-0, 275).
Will be a memorable year if: The Pioneers can make up for a lack of numbers with esprit de corps. Martin said many of the returnees were disappointed with last year’s 4-7 showing that included lopsided losses to Tyner, Red Bank, Howard and Hixson — and with some players quitting when the going got too tough for their liking. The numbers are down some because the coaching staff put the team through a rigorous offseason regimen with the idea of eliminating any other quitters early.
Aug. 19 at Walker Valley
Aug. 26 Boyd-Buchanan
Sept. 2 Red Bank*
Sept. 16 Tyner*
Sept. 23 Ooltewah
Sept. 30 East Hamilton*
Oct. 7 Howard*
Oct. 14 at Hixson*
Oct. 21 at Central*
Oct. 28 at Brainerd*
* District 6-AA game
The 1997 team was Bubba Simmons’ last as East Ridge’s coach, but the Pioneers sent him out with a bang. They the school’s first group to attain 10-win status, make the playoffs and win a playoff game. They also set a school record with nine straight victories. They finished the year 10-2.
“It was a great group of seniors, guys who were freshmen when I first got there,” the new McCallie coach recalled. “They came to practice and games and had fun. They just grew up together, and by their senior year they came together.”
The group included center Cory Weathers, guard David Hulgan, end Jeremy Elliott, linebacker Mark Bales and running backs Ben Edgar, Ian Hearn and Michael Kirby.
“The kids played hard and they played for one another, and we got on a roll,” Simmons said. “Their commitment to each other is what made the team so great.”
Were he a Christmas present, Shaquille Holland would likely be the smallest package under the tree.
East Ridge's three-way senior football standout is motivated by his diminutive dimensions, and somewhere along the way he has thought about an eight-inch stick of dynamite and the damage it would do to a towering Sequoia.
In his cleats he tops out at 5-foot-4. Deck him out in pads and the scales will hover near the 135-pound notch.
"I could sit here and talk about him for a long time," Pioneers coach Mike Martin said. "No, he isn't the biggest player in stature, but he is what every football coach wants in a player. He's tough; he's team- and goal-oriented, resilient, respectful and intelligent."
Holland has heard enough little-guy jokes to last him a lifetime, but no chip materializes on his shoulder. Ask him if he has a pillow when he climbs into his car and he'll politely reply he doesn't need one and, yes -- before you ask -- he can see over the steering wheel.
Yet he never hears Smurf jokes on the football field.
"I guess because of the way I play, people can't say much," he said. "Being small is a gift from God, and I have a big mindset. I feel I can do all things through Christ, but I don't think I have anything to prove."
Ask the folks who've seen him on the basketball court getting up high enough to hang on the rim. Or ask East Hamilton football players, against whom he returned back-to-back kickoffs covering 99 and 95 yards last year.
As a sophomore he played wide receiver. He had good hands but never caught a pass.
"I was out there for my blocking skills," he said.
This year he'll be returning kicks and punts. He'll play in the secondary and he'll show up on offense, but there's no telling where. It might be at receiver, at running back and maybe even at quarterback in a Mustang formation.
"My goals are to succeed in life, graduate from high school and play college football," Holland said. "If I don't get to play, I'll still get my college degree. This year I want to go out and play my hardest and help the team win."
He is a team player and Martin offered a prime example.
"He cramped up at Brainerd, and I mean it was from head to toe, and he was having a hard time breathing. They carried him off the field on a stretcher, loaded him in an ambulance and carted him off to the hospital," the coach said. "I saw him the next morning and the first words out of his mouth were, 'Coach, I'll be ready to go Friday night.' He wound up spending three nights in the hospital, but he played the next week."
Holland was part of an offseason renaissance at East Ridge conducted by Martin and his coaching staff and likely endorsed by the returning starters.
"The past few years when the going got tough we had some guys that quit," Martin said. "This year we worked harder in the offseason to find out early who was going to stick it out.
"Our numbers are down a little, and while I won't say it was by design, we wanted to find the guys that would hang with us. I hope it pays off. I think the roster will be 55-60 by the time the season starts, but I can tell you that our mental toughness has improved across the board."
And leading the way was that little guy who thinks big.
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 ...