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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / South Pittsburg junior Racash Kelly is versatile enough to play quarterback, running back or receiver, and he could be due for a breakout season as the Pirates take aim at a second straight state title this fall.

For all the program's successes, there is still one lingering accomplishment that has yet to be attained.

Despite an area-leading six state championships in football, South Pittsburg has never won back-to-back titles.

On the heels of last season's unexpected Class 1A crown, the Pirates will have another shot at that elusive achievement, although there is very little experienced talent returning, and first they must contend with a much improved group of Region 3-1A opponents.

"We lost way too much to be thinking that far ahead," said Pirates coach Wes Stone, who takes sole control of the program after working as co-head coach and offensive coordinator last year. "We lost six all-state players, and 1A teams don't have guys who look like those dudes every year. We'll have to replace them by committee.

"Our first goal every year is to win the region, but that's going to be a lot tougher now with such a young team and because Whitwell and Sale Creek have made up ground on us and both have a lot more experience coming back than us."

The Pirates overcame last year's early drama of having their head coach abruptly resign after just one game, struggled to find their footing through much of the regular season, then went on a postseason roll that included rallying from two-score second-half deficits for dramatic wins in the semifinals and the BlueCross Bowl title game.

The majority of starters graduated, though, leaving a lack of overall experience — 17 of the 44 players on the roster are freshmen — and the biggest question will be up front, where a new group of linemen must be found on both sides of the ball.

There is talent among the skill positions, led by senior two-sport all-state athlete Jayden Mount and juniors Racash Kelly and Kamden Wellington. All three are versatile enough to play quarterback, running back and receiver, and Kelly — the younger brother of De'Andre Kelly, a Mr. Football finalist last year — could be in for a breakout season.

The defense is deep at linebacker — including last year's leading tacklers Dez McNeil and Jamarion Farrior and Wellington — and in the secondary, where Mount, Kelly and Logan Hargis — the state runner-up in both the 110- and 300-meter hurdles — are fast and physical.

Whitwell showed positive strides in the first year of its rebuilding process under Rocky Stephenson, finishing second in the region.

With all but two starters returning on each side of the ball, the next step for the Tigers is to find more offensive balance. In their four wins they averaged 52 points, but they averaged just 10 in the four losses. A good deal of that inconsistency was due to the number of younger players forced into action.

"The good thing about having to play as many young guys as we did last year is that they gained a lot of actual game experience, and now we shouldn't make the same mistakes that cost us at times," Stephenson said. "In single-A ball you always worry about injuries, but we'll be very competitive if we stay healthy, because this is a hard-working group."

The entire offensive line returns, with Ethan Hobbs the lone senior of the group, and sophomores Brendon Easterly and Bennett McDougal will account for most of the carries out of the backfield. Easterly led the team with nearly 700 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last year.

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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Sale Creek football coach Ron Cox believes the Panthers are ready to challenge for one of the top two spots in Region 3-1A. Accomplishing that goal would clinch a home playoff game for the first time in program history.

Sale Creek also returns all but two starters on each side from a team that averaged 52 points in winning five of its last eight games and qualified for the playoffs for a fourth straight season. The Sept. 30 home game against Whitwell could decide which of those two teams earns a first-round home playoff game.

"We finally feel like we've got our feet under us as a program," Panthers coach Ron Cox said. "The standard is going to the playoffs, so now we feel like we're ready to challenge for one of the top two spots in the region, which would give us our first home playoff game."

Their strength is the return of their entire offensive line, which paved the way to more than 4,000 yards of total offense last year. John Carlock (6-foot-1, 235 pounds), a three-year starter and all-region selection last year, is the team's strongest player and anchors that group.

Ridge Morgan (6-0, 220) will get most of the carries and will be counted on even more early in the season as the battle between junior Jackson Moore and sophomore Kyrie Escobar for the starting nod at quarterback is settled.

Nick Hall — an all-region defender, fifth-year starter and last year's leading tackler for the Panthers — is back to set the pace on defense, and the number of players on the roster has surged to 43, which should help keep fresh legs for the second half of games.

This is also the most experienced Lookout Valley team in years as 17 total starters return, including quarterback Blake Ferguson, fullback Jacob Winchester and running back Jaxon Quails. If the Yellow Jackets stay healthy, there is enough talent to contend for the playoffs for the first time in four years.

With only 22 players currently working out, Copper Basin has the thinnest roster in the area. Although three starters are back on the offensive line, the Cougars will also have an entirely new backfield, including former receiver Cade Dean at quarterback.

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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