Coach: Mark Mariakis (45-31 here; 62-64-1 overall)
Returning starters (O/D/K): 3/2/1
Remember these names: Quarterback Darryl Bridges (Jr., 6-foot, 205) and wide receiver/defensive back Vonn Bell (Jr., 6-1, 180) are transfers who will become immediate game-changers. Ridgeland, despite heavy graduation losses, still has plenty of speed, but the key offensively will be up front with John Gadd (Sr., 5-11, 235), Dustin Davis (Jr., 5-11, 200) and Tre Montgomery (Sr., 6-foot, 270).
Will be a memorable year if: The Panthers are fighting for a playoff spot in week 10. That would seem a low goal for a three-time region champion, but with just five total starters returning, a shot at the playoffs would be a nice building block for next season. The key to being competitive will be how quickly the defense finds its leaders after losing starters at every level.
Aug. 26 at Adairsville
Sept. 2 Allatoona
Sept. 9 Cedartown
Sept. 16 at Gilmer County
Sept. 30 at Dalton*
Oct. 7 LaFayette*
Oct. 14 at Southeast Whitfield*
Oct. 21 Ringgold*
Oct. 28 Heritage*
Nov. 4 Region play-in game
* Region 7A-AAA game
Darryl Bridges doesn't like practice, though it has nothing to do with not wanting to work hard or help make his teammates better.
The Ridgeland junior quarterback often feels left out of half the fun of playing football. In other words, in very un-quarterback fashion, Bridges likes contact.
"He hates wearing the red jersey in practice - hates it," Ridgeland coach Mark Mariakis said of the transfer from Red Bank. "We have to hold him back sometimes, but I think Darryl realizes we need him healthy. Once the season starts, we'll turn him loose a bit because he likes to run and is very good at it."
The Panthers' wing-T offense doesn't often feature a running quarterback, but Bridge's talents likely will bring about a few new wrinkles. However, it's not his running ability that had the Ridgeland coaching staff so excited this summer in 7-on-7 passing league camps. The 6-foot, 205-pounder displayed a strong and accurate arm, especially on deep patterns.
"He's shown us from the start of spring practice right up through the summer a vast improvement all around in his quarterback skills, and we've been pleasantly surprised at how well he's thrown the ball," Mariakis said. "The great thing is he's still learning, but he's very confident in his ability.
"The major thing with Darryl that's struck me is the maturity and calmness he brings to the position. Even when he makes a mistake, or someone else does, he doesn't get rattled."
Bridges left Red Bank because he wanted to play quarterback, a position he played extensively before reaching high school. Though his new coaches were surprised at how smoothly he assumed the position of leadership on an offense that will start nine new players, he felt right at home.
"I guess it comes natural because ever since I was little I've always been a quarterback, so I'm used to it," said Bridges, who will be the program's fourth starting quarterback in four seasons. "I love what this offense can do. We can be explosive. We're a run-based scheme, but we've shown in the passing leagues that we can make some big plays."
The Panthers enter the season as three-time Region 7-AAA champions, so even with 17 new starters they have a huge target on their backs. It's a challenge the new quarterback embraces.
"We have to wear it as a chip on our shoulders that everyone will be coming after us every game and expecting to beat us," Bridges said. "We still have to come together, but once we do we're going to be fine."
Ridgeland has won three consecutive region championships, but there was a time when the Panthers were an afterthought in postseason talk. That all changed in 2008 when Mark Mariakis' team hosted state power Carrollton on Nov. 7 in the region championship game, a game most believed would be a cakewalk for the Trojans.
However, in what is arguably the most important moment in program history, Ridgeland turned around the game and changed the way its fans and even players viewed the team.
"We were down by a point or two and we got the ball at our 45 with under a minute to go before the half," Mariakis recalled. "We debated on whether to run out the clock and be glad we were in the game or do we go for it? We had been practicing the flea flicker all season and hadn't used it, so we called it. We tossed the ball to Mike Bowman and he threw it down the field to Terryl Freeman, who caught it and was run out of bounds inside the 5.
"There were only a few seconds left, so I remember telling [quarterback] Carlan Bowman to throw it away - don't run it - if the pass play we had called wasn't there. But the play broke down, he tucked the ball and walked into the end zone. We went to the locker room, and from that moment on that game just felt like it was ours."
Ridgeland went on to win 28-13.