The rehearsals — scrimmages and seemingly endless practice reps — are finally over, and beginning tonight it's time for high school football to take center stage.
More than eight months after a memorable season was capped by Whitwell laying claim to the program's first state championship, the Southeast's most popular prep sport has stepped back into the spotlight. On its way to winning the Class 1A crown, Whitwell became the 19th Chattanooga-area team — Tennessee and Georgia — to play for a state championship in the past 10 years. It also marked the eighth time in the last decade that one of the three schools from Marion County reached a title game.
As we begin the Friday night excitement with tonight's jamborees, and look forward to next week's season kickoff, here are a few things to watch for this season:
Don't expect the trend of having area teams play for a title to end this fall. Among the programs with legitimate TSSAA championship aspirations are McCallie in Division II-AAA, Notre Dame in DII-AA, Bradley Central in 6A, Red Bank in 3A, Tyner and Meigs County in 2A — they could meet in a semifinal — and South Pittsburg and Whitwell in 1A. Those last two could play twice in a season, including a likely quarterfinals showdown, for a third consecutive year.
Also, Dalton (AAAAAA) and Calhoun (AAA) have their customary loaded rosters and expect to challenge in their respective Georgia classifications.
» Bradley Central will be a track team on turf. The Bears will have speed at every skill position, led by twins Javin and Javon Burke, 1,000-yard rusher Ricky McCleary and receivers Saylor Clark and Tray Curry — all of whom are expected to be college prospects at various levels.
» Brainerd coach Tyrus Ward continues to prove he's an impatient builder. In only his second season back at his alma mater, and with a roster heavy with underclassmen, Ward guided the Panthers to their first playoff appearance in seven years. Now he'll look to contend within the region.
» Baylor might have one of the biggest turnarounds in the state. Coming off consecutive losing seasons, the Red Raiders have added a trio of talented junior newcomers — quarterback Neyland Jean, athlete Elijah Howard (a Tennessee commitment) and Sam Christensen — along with nearly half a dozen other returners who also are college prospects.
» Seeing Derrick Davis wearing the powder blue of McMinn Central is going to take some getting used to. The longtime Polk County coach left his alma mater after last season and then took over the rival Chargers. It will be especially bizarre when Davis and his dad, for whom the Polk County football facility is named, return to that stadium to coach against the Wildcats program they had built.
» It's also going to be really odd not seeing Hal Lamb walking the Calhoun sideline. In 21 seasons with the Yellow Jackets, Lamb compiled an unreal 233-37 overall record, winning Georgia state titles in 2011, 2014, 2017 and finishing runner-up five times. He retired after last season's 13-1 finish that ended in the semifinals.
Longtime assistant Clay Stephenson has the unenviable task of taking over for a legend.
» Just watch what Grant Reynolds builds at East Hamilton. Proving nice guys can finish first, he has won at the highest level at both Boyd Buchanan and Madison (Alabama) Academy and returned to Chattanooga last spring to take over a Hurricanes program that has unlimited potential.
» There will be a revolving door of big-name college coaches coming to McCallie to try to persuade Jay Hardy to commit to their schools. The Blue Tornado's four-star defensive lineman has more than 30 offers, including from every Southeastern Conference team, and admitted he has "about 800 messages" from recruiters that he hasn't even been able to respond to.
» Aaron Swafford might account for half his team's total offense this season. Meigs County's senior quarterback — a Navy commitment — has a chance for the rare repeat as the state's Mr. Football award winner.
» If you don't already know about Dalton running back Jahmyr Gibbs, you're missing out. The senior — a Georgia Tech commitment — looks as if he's gliding effortlessly across the field. He might prove to be the Peach State's best overall running back by season's end.
As the curtain rises on a new season, let's find a comfortable seat and enjoy prep football's four-month theatrical run.
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.