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Red Bank running back Zay Brown breaks a tackle attempt by Signal Mountain's Campbell Garner during a game last September.

They celebrated a football region championship at Red Bank last year, the Lions' first since 2009.

Their season, though, ended far sooner than they hoped it would, blemished by a second-round postseason loss to East Ridge, a team they had handled rather easily during the regular season.

So preparations for attempting to repeat as region champs might be easier.

"We're trying to get the kids to understand that this is this year's team, not last year's," Lions coach Chad Grabowski said. "We definitely take pride in winning that championship, but ultimately we lost last year in the playoffs. That made them hungry. They worked harder in the offseason."

In other words, the Lions began preparing for 2017 with both success and failure as their motivation.

"They're the class of the region," McMinn Central coach Josh Goodin said. "Great athletes; I think they'll be at the top."

Among those great Red Bank athletes are junior Calvin Jackson, who will concentrate his skills as a runner and receiver after quarterbacking the Lions the past two seasons. Grabowski also has experience at running back (Zay Brown), receiver (Mike Porter) and linebacker (Jesse Bonagua, Kedric Richardson), as well as one of the area's top defenders in end Jamel Davis.

"We could have a stingy defense, and the offense should score in the high 20s to low 30s. Of course, that depends on how much the offensive line improves," Grabowski said. "We'll actually be bigger there (240 to 250 pounds average), and we have two (line) starters back (Jeremiah Welch, Murphy Emery). I'm glad we don't play this Friday. It's still a work in progress."

It's the same everywhere.

McMinn is casting about for a replacement for workhorse Jackson Long, who led the Chargers in rushing three years in a row. If they're to compete, sophomore Nate Austin will have to pick up the rushing slack and a revamped offensive line will have to protect returning starting quarterback Hunter Powers in a new region setting.

"This region is along the lines of what Central has traditionally played, and I like going south again and it's nice to get back into familiar territory," Goodin said. "I feel we can be competitive, but it's wait and see how many games we compete and win."

Josh Roberts at Signal Mountain and alumnus Tyrus Ward at Brainerd are first-year head coaches at those programs.

"It's surreal," Ward said of his return to the Panthers. "I've had flashbacks of playing days, just the whole 9 yards."

Even without a regular-season game under his belt, Roberts already has a couple of wins, including a squad that numbers more than 50 and the addition of Tony Webb, the former Lookout Valley coach, to his staff.

He's better off where numbers are concerned — at least for now — than Ward, who has had about 30 players in practice but hopes to have those numbers up to 40 or so by the season opener at Brainerd at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 19.

He'll settle on a starting quarterback for his split-back veer offense the week of that game. It's been a slow go because he didn't have the opportunity to work with any of them over the summer.

"One was in New York, one went to Army training — came back in great shape — and the other played AAU ball all summer," Ward said. "No matter who gets the job, the other two will play. We have three scenarios, depending on who starts there."

Signal Mountain also has scenarios, but only an injury will cause Roberts and the Eagles to go a quarterback direction other than returning starter Tom Vatter.

"With our style of (multiple spread) offense, he has to be the leader and know what we're doing. We're going to be using the receivers more but also running the ball," Roberts said.

The quick-strike offensive mindset will help a rebuilding offensive line.

The other teams in the region are largely unknown to the local guys.

"I know the coach that had the Loudon program rolling a few years ago has returned to the program, and I know Sweetwater is supposed to have some athletes that also ran track," Grabowski said.

Added Goodin: "We haven't played Sweetwater, but Loudon did get the coach back from their really good years. It may be a toss-up between the rest of us."

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

More Info

Team to beat: Red Bank. There are 10 returning starters from its region championship team, and expectations are high for the Lions, who beat the likes of Notre Dame, East Ridge, Howard and Signal Mountain to win that championship.

Watch out for: Signal Mountain, with new coach Josh Roberts, is hoping to regain past glory. A major improvement for the Eagles is numbers. They’ve more than doubled the meager two dozen who finished 2016, swelling the ranks with athletes from baseball, basketball, lacrosse and soccer.

Best game: The region title could be decided when Red Bank travels to Sweetwater on Sept. 29.

Dream schedule: Sweetwater faces just two teams (Meigs County, Red Bank) that had winning records last year, and only one of the remaining teams (Sequoyah) was in a higher classification.

Nightmare schedule: Division II-AA members Baylor and McCallie, which last year outscored Red Bank a combined 94-7, are not on the list. But the Lions’ first two games are against higher-classification teams (5A’s Soddy-Daisy, 4A’s Central). The rest of their nonregion schedule includes 4A’s Hixson and 5A members Walker Valley and Lenoir City.

Players to watch: Red Bank may have the region’s best lineman in defensive end Jamel Davis (6-4, 265) and one of the best athletes in Calvin Jackson, who is moving from quarterback to wide receiver and running back. Signal Mountain quarterback Tom Vatter (6-3, 200) is getting some college looks. McMinn Central’s Hunter Powers (6-3, 230) is the region’s biggest quarterback. There are a pair of quality athletes at Brainerd — Joseph Norwood (6-1, 175) and Danarius Smith (5-11, 223).

Predicted order of finish: Red Bank, Sweetwater, Loudon, Signal Mountain, McMinn Central, Brainerd.

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