Pioneers hopeful but cautious about 6-AA title

Pioneers hopeful but cautious about 6-AA title

August 11th, 2014 by Ward Gossett in Sports - Preps

DISTRICT 6-AA AT A GLANCE

* Team on the rise: Brainerd, Howard and Central would like this distinction, but a coaches' poll favors Red Bank, where new coach Chad Grabowski is enjoying a quality assortment of athletes including receiver Malik Davis, tight end/linebacker Courtney Stamper, quarterback Caleb Tate and linebacker Gabe Smith and an offensive line anchored by veterans Myles Smith and Trevor Skiles.

* Team on the decline: Defending champion Hixson has a new coach in Dan Duff and a ball-control-type veer offense along with quality and quantity experience in the lines, but the Wildcats are trying to replace a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, a quarterback and most of their receivers.

* Toughest schedule: In addition to the district challenges, Brainerd opens the season with District 5-AAA co-favorite Ooltewah and then plays at Division II state power Ensworth. The Panthers open the district schedule on Sept. 5 against Brainerd and go to Baylor on Sept. 12 before resuming the district gauntlet.

* Dream schedule: Every team has at least one Class AAA team on its schedule. As far as being attractive, Tyner's schedule opens with crowd-bringing Signal Mountain, and after a district opener the next week (also at home) the Rams play at Class 4A semifinalist Knoxville Catholic before settling into the district grind.

* Players to watch: Scout Morgan started a few games for Central, but East Ridge's JoJo Tillery, who's getting college looks right now as a safety, is the only true returning quarterback. College prospects also are at Brainerd (receiver/cornerback Kaylen Stewart) and Red Bank (defensive end/linebacker/tight end Courtney Stamper, receiver/safety Malik Davis). Howard's offensive line will average more than 300 pounds. Tyner running back Shannon Sprawls, despite ACL surgery on each knee, could emerge as a player-of-the-year candidate.

* Predicted order of finish: In a TFP poll of the coaches, East Ridge, with 15 returning starters, was picked first. The question is whether the Pioneers can avoid stubbing their toe in a balanced district. Despite having to replace a number of skill people, Tyner was second. The new-coach teams were next: Red Bank (Chad Grabowski), Hixson (Dan Duff), Howard (Mark Teague) and Central (Ryan Mallory). Brainerd, with second-year coach Brian Gwyn, used a late spurt last year (including a season finale win over 6-AA winner Hixson), to springboard its winter workouts and spring drills.

East Ridge players have known since spring practice that they could, even should, be the preseason favorites to win the District 6-AA football championship.

The Pioneers had the most returning starters and defending champion Hixson graduated close to two dozen players, including the bulk of its yardage-producers. Tyner, the team that challenged Hixson and East Ridge a year ago, would be trying to replace most of its skill guys and part of its line.

"We don't talk about it much. We try to stay even-keel, focus on what we're trying to get done every day," Pioneers coach Tracy Malone said.

The coach will talk about balance in the district and zeros in on Tyner.

"It seems like the last 20 years that Wayne Turner's Tyner teams are the same thing every year. They're physical on both sides of the ball," Malone said. "They're going to have five running backs capable and willing of shoving it down your throat and a defense that's going to smother you."

He is guarded in his optimism.

"The district championship won't be decided until Oct. 31 (game 10 of the regular season), but we feel like we have a good football team and we're not shying away from that," he said. "We want to play good people and earn what we get."

Yet there is a subdued, back-to-the-ground murmur among East Ridge coaches and players if one of their number gets carried away.

"Loudon" or "Loudon practice" is usually all it takes to rein in overly abundant exuberance.

"Here we were last year on a three-game win streak and we're playing Loudon," Malone recalled. "We had a horrible week of practice. Loudon was 0-5 or 0-6 and had gotten beat by Howard. We had our worst week of practice and Loudon got four or five starters back that had been injured. We started off bad."

And it got worse.

"Loudon beat us 42-7 -- beat us like we had stolen something -- so when we aren't having a real good practice day," Malone said, "one of the coaches or older players will ask, 'Is this a Loudon kind of practice?' Our kids have a lot of pride and want to be successful, so our mindset is focused on being the same every day."

Malone agreed that not only was this the best team he'd had at East Ridge but the best team he had coached. There is competition and daily-changing depth charts at most every position other than quarterback, where third-year starter JoJo Tillery is solidly entrenched.

That depth has increased competition.

"We have five or six receivers, and the depth chart is not just changing every day but every practice period," Malone said. "Same thing at tight end or running back, depending on who blocks best in a period, who fumbles. Somebody is going to say 'Next man up.' It could be like that at most every position, even though we have a good number of starters returning.

"It's like the defensive line. We've got returning all-district players at each end, and we have two sophomores wearing them out every day trying to get playing time, and it's the same thing at tackle."

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfreepress.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.