Last year, North Murray High School’s football team started the best season in the program’s short history with a 37-14 victory against Southeast Whitfield, and it was an experienced Mountaineers squad that topped the Raiders.
When they face off in another season opener tonight at Raider Stadium, the scales of experience will be tipped toward the other sideline.
North Murray finished 5-5 and missed the state playoffs after going 4-1 to open its 2012 schedule. Tonight marks the start of the Mountaineers’ fourth year of varsity football and another shot a winning season, which is something the Mountaineers — who went 1-19 from 2010 to 2011 — have never had.
The Raiders have plenty of motivation, too. They’re on a quest for their first winning season since 1986.
“If we beat North Murray, it would definitely change the whole philosophy about everything here and the whole mindset,” said Southeast senior Abram Stanley, a wide receiver and inside linebacker.
In other high school football games involving area teams, Model is at Christian Heritage, Murray County is at Coahulla Creek and Pepperell is at Northwest Whitfield. All kickoffs are at 7:30 p.m.
North Murray had 23 seniors on its roster last year, and a number that stands at 10 this season. The Raiders’ senior class of 17 includes four-year starters Blake Foster and Rhett Harper. Foster is a running back, slot receiver and cornerback. Harper is a slot receiver, cornerback and one of two quarterbacks expected to receive playing time this season, along with sophomore Will Swantic.
Harper returned a kickoff for a touchdown against North Murray last season, while Foster had an 11-yard touchdown run while playing quarterback.
“Those two are as good as anywhere around and it seems like they’ve been playing there for about 10 years now,” North Murray coach David Gann said. “Those kids can hurt you every time they touch the ball.”
One problem the Raiders faced last year was defending the Mountaineers’ triple-option offense. North Murray’s all-senior backfield of quarterback Brady Swilling, running back Jacob Mays and fullback Christian Bukle combined for more than 400 yards on the ground that night.
Both teams were debuting new head coaches in last year’s opener. Southeast coach Sean Gray led the Raiders to a 2-8 mark but felt his team was playing much better by the end of 2012.
“We feel a lot better prepared this year than we were last year,” Gray said. “Also, I don’t think we had any idea how good Swilling and Mays were. ... Right at the end of their scrimmage game last year against Model, Swilling had an 80-yard touchdown run. I looked to my coaches and said, ‘That scares me right there.’ Because he looked like he was flying. Well, he was flying.”
Southeast must deal with another dual threat at quarterback, junior Hinton McConkey. Gray also mentioned senior fullback John Chastain, junior wide receiver Peyton Swilling and sophomore running back Drake McCowan as players the Raiders must beware of tonight.
Gann and the Mountaineers defense will need to plan for two looks from the Raiders. In the spread, Swantic will play quarterback and Harper will line up at receiver; in the I formation, Harper will play quarterback and Foster will be at running back.
“It makes it tough,” Gann said, “trying to prepare for two different styles of offense, not knowing what they’ll do and when they will do it.”
Model at Christian Heritage
Christian Heritage was in contention for a spot in the Georgia High School Association’s Class A private school playoffs through the final week of the 2012 regular season, and the missed opportunity has been a driving force in the offseason.
Tonight, the Lions — with only two starters gone from last year — begin their push for redemption.
“We are excited, and if you think about all of the hours in the weight room over the winter and all of the spring workouts and all of the seven-on-seven play over the summer, you better be ready,” Christian Heritage coach Preston Poag said. “If you aren’t excited now, you aren’t ready to play football.”
The excitement was a little much for the Lions in last year’s season opener at Model. Making its GHSA debut, Christian Heritage committed seven turnovers.
“We came out a little overwhelmed and just killed ourselves with mistakes,” Poag said.
Model coach Gordon Powers doesn’t expect the Lions to make the same mistakes this year.
“I hope my players are mature enough to know last year could have been a lot closer,” Powers said.
Quarterback Trevor Brown, running back Jake Stokes and wide receiver Nich Bartley are returning starters who will lead Christian Heritage’s offense versus Model’s blitz-happy defense. When Model has the ball, the Lions will likely key on junior running back Nakyle Watkins, who rushed for more than 800 yards despite not moving into a starting role until midway through last season.
“They are pretty basic on offense, but they are effective,” Poag said. “On both lines, we will have to hit them in the mouth. We saw last year that we didn’t block them real well, and the line play on both side of the ball will be key.”
Model lost eight starters from last year, and six of those were linemen.
“I think that it will be a real battle,” Powers said. “Both teams are returning a lot of players. It is one of those games that is going to be a tight ballgame all night long.”
Murray County at Coahulla Creek
With a season of varsity competition to rely upon as well as a larger senior class than in 2012, Coahulla Creek expects big things for Year 2 of varsity play.
Murray County is just ready to get Year 1 under coach Chad Brewer started.
Although Murray County was winless last season, which started with Coahulla Creek beating the Indians 55-6, Colts coach Jared Hamlin said his team can’t relax.
“It is a new year and a new season and a new game,” Hamlin said. “They have some different kids and we have some different kids. You can’t look on last year because this isn’t last year. They have changed. That is the key. We have to worry about ourselves and make sure we are getting better.”
Brewer — a former Southeast and Northwest assistant who was hired in the spring and is a high school head coach for the first time — is just ready for his team’s first game to start.
“I will be anxious,” Brewer said. “They have put in a lot of work and have already made progress. The attitude is much better, and we are much better than we were four weeks ago. That isn’t going to guarantee them things, but good things will happen.”
Brewer said his team can’t expect to make huge strides, but that isn’t what he is asking of them.
“We have to win the quarters before we can start talking about winning games,” Brewer said. “We are talking about baby steps. We want to win the first quarter and then win the second quarter. We can’t look at the scoreboard all night.”
Coahulla Creek will be keyed offensively by quarterback Blaine Williams. On defense, the Colts are led by free safety Erick Dominguez, whose seven interceptions in 2012 were best among all varsity players in Murray and Whitfield counties.
“Those two guys could start for anyone in the area,” Brewer said. “We have to contain those two, and then there are a lot of other players that can hurt you. We have to control the ball and keep them off of the field.”
Hamlin said he is concerned with the pistol offense Brewer has installed with junior quarterback Justin Smith in charge.
“The offense they are running gets the ball in their hands quick, and it is going to be difficult to get a rush on (Smith),” Hamlin said. “We just have to make sure that we are getting in his way and getting our hands up. We have to keep him from being accurate.”
Pepperell at Northwest
Sure, the visiting Dragons may be a Class 2A school, but Bruins coach Josh Robinson doesn’t want to hear anything about scheduling a weak opponent for his Class 4A program’s season opener.
“They’ve made the playoffs eight straight seasons,” Robinson said. “They are a very good football program and one of the best in this area.”
The Dragons finished the year 6-5 and lost 34-0 to Westminster in the first round of the state playoffs. The Bruins, however, haven’t reached the postseason since 2009, when they lost 40-3 to Southwest DeKalb in the Class 4A bracket.
Over the past eight years, the Dragons are 66-26.
But Northwest won 23-7 at Pepperell to start last season.
“Let me say this, if we don’t play well and do what we have to do, Pepperell will beat our brakes off,” Robinson said.
Robinson called the Dragons’ offensive line “at worst the second-biggest line we play this season.” He said Pepperell usually showcases a spread and I-formation offense, but this year the Dragons will base out of the wing-T.
“We’re trying to adjust to our personnel,” Pepperell coach Jeff Shiflett said. “We don’t have a lot of experience on offense.”
On defense, it’s another story. Pepperell returns nine starters, including defensive linemen Trippe Hobbs, a senior, and Zach O’Neal, a junior.
Northwest’s offense will take a much different approach than Pepperell’s wing-T, which tends to small gains and time-consuming possessions. The Bruins use offensive coordinator David Crane’s up-tempo, no-huddle spread scheme. Junior quarterback Caleb Shiflett, who is a first-time starter, has a lot of weapons on offense, including senior wide receivers Andy Whisenant and Tevin McDaniel.
Pepperell’s coach knows what that means for his defense.
“The biggest key is open-field tackling,” he said. “We have to do a good job of that. Spread offenses put you in a situation where you’re one on one and have to make a tackle.”