Stephen Hargis: Still lot ahead for Signal, East Hamilton

Stephen Hargis: Still lot ahead for Signal, East Hamilton

August 24th, 2012 by Stephen Hargis in Sports - Columns

Not even a complete week into the high school football season, my, how things have changed already.

With last Friday's week-zero thumping of Signal Mountain, many people have said East Hamilton dethroned the team that was thought to be the city's top public school program this season and claimed that distinction for its own. The king is dead. Long live the king.

In the days since the Hurricanes both claimed their first win by the TSSAA's 35-point mercy rule and handed the Eagles their first such loss, praise has been heaped on the one while talk of over-hype has been tossed at the other.

But before we crown the Hurricanes and shovel dirt onto the Eagles' season, let's remember it's a long journey between Labor Day and Halloween, and how those two teams respond to last week's result will actually define their seasons, not that lone game.

Make no mistake, Signal Mountain should be just fine. The Eagles still will be the class of District 7-AA, and with eight sophomores who started or got significant playing time last week, they should be a very dangerous team once the playoffs roll around.

For historical perspective, Marion County in 1990, North Jackson in 1993, Boyd-Buchanan in 2003 and South Pittsburg in 2010 all lost by double figures in the regular season but bounced back to win state titles those years. The Eagles have too much talent not to rebound, and this is the same staff that led the program to the 2A title two years ago, after all.

East Hamilton's biggest challenge from this point is how to retain the confidence from that win without dwelling on it. The Hurricanes have set themselves up for a memorable season, and what was once the program's weakness - experience - can now be what carries them to even bigger achievements the rest of the season. It begins tonight when neighborhood rival Ooltewah comes to visit.

"I wanted the kids to enjoy that win for a day or two, but I told them to come back to practice on Monday ready to put it behind us and start looking ahead to Ooltewah," Hurricanes coach Ted Gatewood said.

"As a coach you worry about all the pats on the back they've been getting all week. But we have also already started to talk about the playoffs and what we want to accomplish, because I'm a firm believer we need to let our expectations be known."

The fact that in only the program's fourth year the Hurricanes already talk of such lofty goals as winning a second straight District 6-AA title and making a deep run into the playoffs -- and already have a signature win to open this season -- speaks volumes for the coaches' work.

Before getting East Hamilton's program off the ground, Gatewood had proven himself as a Bob Villa of prep football programs. When he took over at Ooltewah in 1997, the Owls were the only program in Hamilton County that never had qualified for the playoffs and had almost as many 1-9 seasons (8) as winning records (12). In his fourth year with the Owls they made a playoff appearance, and the next year they reached the semifinals, winning 10 straight games before falling to the eventual state champions.

I remember asking Gatewood how the experience of turning Ooltewah into a winner would help him as he began work at East Hamilton in 2009.

"I know what it feels like to get my butt whipped and to come back the next week and keep working to get better," Gatewood said then, as he rummaged through the portable trailer that served as the team's equipment room. "That's what we'll try to teach these kids."

That first season, with no seniors, 15 juniors and 45 freshmen, East Hamilton went 1-9. After finishing the next season 2-8, the Hurricanes took a giant leap forward last year, winning their final four regular-season games to claim the district title and a playoff berth and finish with a winning record.

All of which, along with last week's impressive win, has set up huge expectations for the rest of this season for the Hurricanes.