Coach: Houston White (12-28 here; 22-40 overall)
Returning starters (O/D/K): 7/6/2
Remember these names: Two-way linemen Cameron Hill (sr., 6-4, 270) and Christian Varner (Sr., 6-0, 240), quarterback/linebacker Justin Mathieson (Sr., 5-10, 170) and running back/linebacker Clarencio Holmes (Sr., 5-7, 185) are important cogs in Hixson's offense and defense.
Will be a memorable year if: The Wildcats have a winning season. They haven't had one in four years, and they're in a tough district with the likes of Red Bank, Tyner, Howard and up-and-coming East Hamilton. This, though, is probably the Wildcats' best shot since White took over. The biggest concern will be keeping Mathieson and Holmes healthy.
Aug. 26 at Walker Valley
Sept. 2 at Howard*
Sept. 9 at Marion County
Sept. 16 Red Bank*
Sept. 23 DeKalb County
Sept. 30 Tyner*
Oct. 7 East Hamilton*
Oct. 14 East Ridge*
Oct. 21 at Brainerd*
Oct. 28 at Central*
* District 6-AA game
All those 2010 projections about Justin Mathieson got put on hold.
"I was a cheerleader in a football jersey," he said of his junior season. "I might not remember every play, but I was at every game."
Mathieson's hopes and those of Hixson coaches, players and fans suffered a debilitating blow when he suffered a serious knee injury in a preseason scrimmage that kept him from filling his billing as the Wildcats' versatile offensive spark and one of their defensive leaders.
"He would have been an H-back and tight end, and much of our offense would have revolved around his versatility," coach Houston White said. "He was going to be a 'slash' guy who could run, catch and throw the ball. We just weren't able to be as versatile."
White's frustration was no greater than Mathieson's own.
"It is a frustration I can't explain, especially when I saw things I could have done or could have corrected," the player said.
After bouncing back from surgery in near-record time (four months) and qualifying for the state wrestling tournament, Mathieson was one of the anchors for Hixson soccer. Only then did football begin to receive his full attention again.
And then came another scare, one that could have ended his athletic career.
The Wildcats were to open a three-day, no-cell-phones, stay-on-campus minicamp in two days when Mathieson's car got T-boned within a block of school when another driver failed to stop at a red light. Fortunately he was able to walk away from the collision, although he was still sorer than the Saturday after a game when White opened the highly anticipated camp.
The Wildcats were in fact more than eager to get started that Monday morning. They awoke White at 6:15, 30 minutes before he was scheduled to get them up.
"It didn't bother me at all," the coach said of the pounding at the door of his makeshift bedroom in one of the school's portable classrooms. "Two things stood out: one, that the seniors took the initiative to get started early and, two, the underclassmen responded so well to their leadership."
That's one of the changes White hopes to parlay into the program's first winning season since 2006.
"It's different this year because we do have a lot of senior leadership," Mathieson said. "Hixson hasn't had a great season in a while, but we haven't had the team atmosphere. We have more team attitude than I've ever seen."
Among the other senior leaders are Clarencio Holmes, who will be a focal point in the team's no-huddle Pistol offense, and offensive linemen Camereon Hill and Christian Varner.
The Wildcats' last winning season was also Todd Windham's final season as their coach.
"We came out of the gate phenomenally strong and then hit a wall," said Windham, who left his alma mater for his current job at Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe.
Behind the likes of running back Charles Hardy, fullback/linebacker Eric Gillespie, receiver/linebacker Greg Rivers and quarterback/defensive back Kevin Cantrell, that Hixson team started 6-1 and was in the thick of the region-title race. A shutout loss to Cleveland sent the Wildcats in the other direction.
"It was fall-break week," Windham recalled, "and I'm not saying that getting out of a routine was the reason we lost, because Cleveland had a good team and Hixson has traditionally had a tough time with Cleveland. It was close at the half and they broke it open in the second half."
"It was a big game for both schools, and I remember looking at the stands and their side was full and our side was - well, there weren't very many people there."
Still reeling from that showing, Hixson lost the next week to Brainerd, which put a definite damper on the season finale against Red Bank.
"We didn't finish well," Windham acknowledged. "I remember that last game was a monsoon game, as muddy as it could be, and then we had to deal with some disciplinary issues. I'm proud of the winning season and the way we started, but I don't think any of us - coaches or players - would disagree if you said we could have had a playoff season if we had finished down the stretch."