Chris Kirksey did not mince words when it came to the Marion County football team’s goal this season.
A region championship, Kirksey said, is the expectation around the program now. It’s an understandable assertion: The Eagles went 12-1 with an unbeaten regular season in 2018, and have steadily improved each year since 2017. Last year, they came nine points away from a state championship appearance, ultimately falling to Clinch County.
The Eagles hit the ground running with rival Schley County in Week 2, then take on a tough region that includes Manchester, Brookstone and Pacelli.
“It just builds from (Week 2),” Kirksey said at the 2019 PrepZone Kickoff, hosted by WRBL at the Chattahoochee River Club. “It just gets bigger. So we’re trying to develop our depth and get to the point that we can execute like we need to.”
Kirksey and the Eagles are far from the only team with high expectations entering the 2019 season, which kicks off with several pre-season games in the coming weeks. Brookstone and Pacelli both appear geared for better seasons this year — Brookstone went 7-5 and made the second round of the playoffs in 2018. Pacelli finished 4-6.
The Cougars, who finished second behind region 4-A champion Marion County in 2018, return lots of experience and enough talent to compete with the best GHSA Class 1A schools. The Cougars have made the playoffs every year since 2015, and won their first playoff game in more than a decade last season, which served as Harrison’s second year back at the helm after departing the program following the 2011 season.
“We’ve got good running backs, we’ve got our leading tackler back, we’ve got a lot of pieces,” Brookstone coach Blair Harrison said to the Ledger-Enquirer in July. “But the expectations are just to go out and compete, and see how it all falls. … We hope we’re in the same position as we were last year.”
As usual, local powers Carver and Central-Phenix City expect nothing short of a deep playoff run. Central returns the bulk of its talent from last year’s state-champion team, and quarterback Tucker Melton (a Bowling Green commit) is more than talented enough to fill the void left by now-LSU Tiger Peter Parrish.
Troup County has Division I prospects on both sides of the ball in quarterback/receiver Kobe Hudson (committed to Auburn) and defensive end Andy Boykin (offered by Auburn, Alabama and others). The Tigers made the Class 4A semifinals a season ago and lost just one game in the regular season.
“Expectations have changed dramatically,” Tigers coach Tanner Glisson said. “We bring some kids back who are really good players. I think the expectation is to try to keep making progress toward that ultimate goal (a state championship). This group that we have now knows nothing but winning.”
Teams aim to get back to winning ways
Harris County went 4-7 last year, but made the playoffs, though the Tigers lost by 35 to Dutchtown. The Tigers have not seen great success since the 9-3 2014 season that saw them narrowly fall in the Class 5A playoffs to top-seeded Gainesville, but there’s a sense of optimism about this year’s team.
Last year was Jamie Fox’s first season in charge, and the Tigers finished 2-2 in the five-team region that includes Bainbridge and Warner Robins — two teams who met in the 5A state championship last season.
“It ain’t quite what we wanted, but we still made positives out of it,” Fox said. “When you lose three offensive linemen to ACL injuries last year, and we lost our starting quarterback for over four-and-a-half games with a high ankle sprain. We had a lot of obstacles to overcome.”
Still, there’s much going in Harris County’s favor. The Tigers have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and return Davion Mahone, a three-year starter, at quarterback.
At Calvary, head coach Brian Osborne said he might have his best team since the state-runner-up squad of 2014. The Knights lost to Community, which they play in Week 2, in the first round of the GICAA playoffs last season.
The Knights open with four straight road games, and host Sherwood, the team that beat them in that 2014 state championship, for their home opener.
“We can be region champions this year,” Osborne said in July. “We’ve got a realistic chance of being region champions this year and getting a first-round bye in the playoffs.”
Rising above past performances
Kendrick won just one game last season and failed to score more than 12 points in eight of their 10 games. The Cherokees face Shaw and Hardaway, both of which are one classification above them, to open the 2019 season. Cherokees coach Andre Slappey said in order for the team to get more wins, it must minimize self-inflicted mistakes that caused its downfall last year.
Jordan, another team looking to get back to winning ways, enters 2019 after a two-win season last year, in which it beat Kendrick 22-8.
Then, there’s Spencer and first-year coach Robert Sanders.
Sanders has worked at various positions at Spencer over 24 years, including athletic director, defensive coordinator and offensive coordinator, and said players are already buying into his message. He steps into a team that made the playoffs in each of the last four years.
Now, he thinks the Greenwave Owls are ready to take that next step.
“We don’t want to be a four-seed,” Sanders said. “We want to be a one, two, three, whatever, and host a game and advance.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article contained inaccurate information regarding the 4-A standings in the 2018 season. The Brookstone Cougars finished second in the region.