JASPER, Tenn. - The anticipation has been building for prep football teams throughout the Chattanooga area since last season ended. Teams across the state are allowed to begin practicing in pads Monday in preparation for kickoff to the new season, which is less than four weeks away.
But nowhere is a team, and a town, more anxious to get back on the field and begin a fresh start than at Marion County. Neither the players or new staff, directed by spirited first-year head coach Ricky Ross, had any involvement in the events of last year's embarrassing fieldhouse vandalism or practice violations that led to the TSSAA taking away spring practice as well as two weeks during the summer. Although they were unfortunate victims of other people's bad choices, this year's group of Warriors are still using it as motivation.
"There's some bitterness from last year for the kids," Ross said. "I think they're sick and tired of hearing about it and being lumped in with what other people did. Not getting to have spring practice and missing a couple of weeks in the summer was tough, especially since we're introducing a whole new offense and defense to the kids, but it's over now and it's time to move on.
"As coaches, you worry that you might be a few weeks behind everybody else, but the one thing I noticed early on is that these kids are not afraid to work. It'll be tough to make our kids bow out."
Ross, who earned a reputation as one of the top defensive coaches in Georgia as the coordinator during Calhoun's run of five straight state championship game appearances including the 2011 Class AA title, has added five new assistants to the staff with just one holdover from last year.
For the 14 Warriors seniors, Ross will be their third head coach in their four years.
"When I took over, every bit of trust they had was gone," Ross said. "The kids have been through a lot emotionally and they had every reason in the world not to trust me. But I've made sure they see that I'm here every day working to earn their trust and that I care about all of them. I let them know that I want us to have a special season but I also want to help them become great men away from the field too."
Bonding with the players on and off the field was also one of the reasons the Warriors recently spent three days at a camp in Adairsville, Ga.
But Monday the Warriors new staff, which plans to build the team's identity around toughness, led by bruising two-time all-state running back Blake Zeman, will finally get to see just how physical they are by finally putting on the pads.
"It'll be fun to get to hit and see where we are as a team," Zeman said. "It's taking too long to get here really. We're all excited to show what we can do and that we're a different team this year.
"It's kind of sad to know it's my last year to play high school ball, but we can't wait to get started because we've been working hard to make it special."
Aside from the overhauled offense and defense, Ross and the new staff also introduced a stringent new conditioning and workout program with noticeable results, including 5-foot-10, 225-pound Zeman having lost nearly 20 pounds.
"He's faster and quicker than he's ever been, and when he sticks his foot in the ground and turns it up, he's special," Ross said. "I'll say this, very few want to deal with him for four quarters. We've got a lot of kids like him who want to show how all their hard work is going to pay off.
"I know there's a rich tradition here, but we don't want to just live in the past. We want to build on that and make new memories. We want people talking about what we do starting this year."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.