By Derrick Davis and Samuel D. Logan
The Valdosta Daily Times
Fans and media gathered into the Holiday Inn business center Saturday morning for the 3rd Annual Huddle Up for Health to hear the region’s coaches discuss their respective team’s upcoming season.
The event, coordinated by “In The Game” magazine, South Georgia Medical Center, and Mediacom, hosted various coaches from teams such as: Valdosta, Clinch County, Berrien, Valwood School, Cook County, Colquitt County, Thomas County Central, Camden County, Lowndes, Thomasville, and Brooks County.
All the coaches sat in front of the room and spoke one-by-one about their team’s offseason progress and what the 2013 season holds for the program.
The one common theme among each coach in attendance was the support they showed for Brooks County head coach Maurice Freeman.
Three Brooks County players were killed in a car accident on July 9 and another was seriously injured. Jicarre Watkins, Shawn Waters, and Johnie Parker lost their lives in the accident; De’Vron Whitfield was lifeflighted to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, but has since recovered.
Each coach also discussed how fierce the competition is at every level of Georgia high school football.
Colquitt County head coach Rush Propst summed it up best, “Georgia high school football is as good as anywhere else.”
Coming off their first losing season since 1985, Clinch County head coach Jim Dickerson began his turn at the microphone very lightheartedly.
Dickerson admitted to the team experiencing some growing pains the past few seasons, unfortunately for fans, Dickerson expected the rebulding cycle to last one more season.
With a strong junior varsity and middle school team, Dickerson is hoping that next season is when wins will begin to become more frequent.
Clinch went 4-6 last season; Dickerson cited a few of the reasons for that record as an inexperienced team and a tough schedule, in region and out. Those obstacles don’t look to be any different this season.
Clinch had to face Brooks County as well as class A champion Eagles Landing Christian Academy in non-region games last season, and will face both of those teams once again.
Coach Dickerson explained that the Panthers had two underclassmen being scouted as Division I prospects, but lamented the fact they weren’t on a depleated offensive line.
Dickerson finished up with kind words for Brooks County coach Maurice Freeman.
Ashley Henderson stepped up in front of the crowd at the Holiday Inn coming off a perfect 14-0 season and a state championship in his first season as Valwood head coach, so it would have been easy for him to become complacent, but from listening to Henderson’s news conference no one would have dared to think so.
Henderson complimented his team’s character first and foremost. He discussed how last year’s championship team’s work ethic had been inherited by the younger players on the roster.
Henderson, who came to Valwood after leaving the Valdosta coaching staff, explained how he has attempted to bring the work ethic and drive of the bigger public schools to a GISA team like Valwood.
Once he began dissecting the roster, Henderson declared that the Valiants will hang their hat on defense, particularly, their secondary. Mark Merine and brother Char Merine are the two of the guys that make the defensive backfield of Valwood tick.
Henderson singled out linebacker as the team’s position of weakness on the defensive side of the ball after the graduation of do-it-all stud Khary Paige. The Valiants have moved players to linebacker hoping to find one that sticks.
On offense, same as the defense, the Merine brothers will be the anchors of the unit.
Henderson described Char as a playmaker at the receiver position. Mark will play at runningback and at slot receiver.
“Probably the most dynamic player we have, Mark Merine,” Henderson said. “He’s lightning in a bottle; I’ve described him as somebody you’d have a hard time tackling in a telephone booth.”
At the quarterback spot, Lowndes transfer Seth Carlo will battle with Carter Elliot.
Despite winning the state championship, Henderson says he would have done somethings differently as well. In particular, Henderson cited cramps as an issue from over working kids in practice and games with their up-tempo style of play.
Vikings head coach Randy McPherson could not be at media day because of a prior engagement, so assistant coach Honeycutt took his turn at the podium instead.
Honeycutt began by complimenting the commitment of the players and coaches in South Georgia in not only football, but in their personal lives.
After the nice sentiment, Honeycutt got down to the business of Lowndes football. The first thing Honeycutt mentioned about the football team was the amount of chemistry and unity the team has going into the season.
“This a group that has high chemistry,” Honeycutt said. “According to coach McPherson chemistry, unity, morale, unselfishness is at an all-time high.”
Honeycutt said that coach McPherson has challenged the players with the phrase, “do whatever it takes,” and the players have responded.
According to Honeycutt, the keys to how competitive the Vikings will be this season are the development of the younger players, and the leadership of the older players.
The Vikings are specifically looking at seniors, Ahman Brown, Eric Hart, Brandon Roberts, and Tre Jackson to provide the leadership and stability to carry Lowndes to the next level.
Honeycutt stated Jackson will receive significant snaps on both sides of the ball.
Dyshon Sims and Zach Copland are two guys that will play in the trenches who were also named as important contributors this season.
Honeycutt spoke very briefly about the season, perhaps prepared to let the Vikings’ play do the talking.
“If Region 1-AA wasn’t tough enough as it is, we now have Coach Riles at Thomasville, and the legend Coach Pilcher at Berrien so its more scary now than its ever been,” said Cook Hornets head coach Ken Cofer.
The current team is one of the youngest Cook has had since 2005. The quarterback, Connor Hiliard, is a mere sophomore and will try to lead the Hornets to the playoffs.
The receiving core is built up of sophomores, in addition to the defensive line. The team is built with athletes and will focus on the speed and ability of the players.
Some major losses include three linebackers for various reasons and star running back, Grant Wilson, who was lost to an ACL tear during spring practice. While coach Cofer is not rushing the recovery of Wilson, he did hint that the running back could make a return as early as the Thomasville game on September 27th.
The team has been working to improve all summer and players have been noted to take pride in conditioning and training.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Hornets are glad to have a more athletic group of players than they have had in the past. The players will be playing on both sides of the ball this season.
Jeremiah Smith, a starting free safety, will get his time to shine on the offensive side of the ball as a wide receiver, in addition to other players that have the same task.
Cofer describes his team as “aggressive” and promises that they will play that same way.
Overall on the offensive side of the ball, they are pretty solid. One rough spot however is the wideout group. Lead by Tavian Allen, 6’ 1”, most of the receivers on the roster have consistency issues and drop a lot of passes.
Cofer has faith in the Hornets to make the playoffs this season, after ending last year with an average 7-4 record.
When Maurice Freeman stepped to the podium, the somber feeling in the room as almost unamimous. After the loss of three key players to an accident, this Trojan team has the task of survivng through the tragedy.
This years Trojans include 55 players, with 14 returning seniors.
In the region, the top four teams have at least made it past the first two rounds of the playoffs.
“Anytime you drive down highway 84, you know you’re in for some good football,” said Freeman.
After beating Valdosta High last season, Freeman is excited to take on that challenge again.
The team has 6 returning starters on offense and defense respectivly.
Malkom Parrish is the starting quarterback for the team, and has also signed to play football at the University of Georgia as a cornerback, which oddly, he has never played at Brooks Co.
The offensive line is majority filled with returning players. Running back however is shapping up to be an issue coming up for the Trojans.
The primary offense will be spread formation, to compliment the style of QB play expected from the talented Parrish.
Special teams is a big factor of this team, who finished the season 12-1. Freeman stated that the Trojans try to score at least eight special teams touchdowns a season to be successful.
Defense will not be returning any linebackers, which is a blow to the 4-4 defense that the team runs.
The Berrien Rebels haven’t won more games than they lost since 1995. Which is exactly why the hiring of legendary coach Ed Pilcher is the hope that Rebel fans needed.
Pilcher takes over a team that has clear issues on the football field. Finishing last season 3-7 is dismal to say the least, but Pilcher is sure he can turn things around for the team.
“I am at a phase in my career, where I just wanna coach. It doesn’t matter where,” said Pilcher.
Last season ended with the Rebels only having 24 players on their roster. Summer training has bolstered the roster, which now holds 50 players, including only 8 returning seniors.
Pilcher explained that the team is starting from scratch. The team is young when it comes to play time experience.
Pilcher wants this Rebels team to be hungry and fight hard, and try to make the playoffs. He admitted that it may take a little time, but the group of players he is working with are special.
AJ Wooten, a cornerstone on the offensive line, has committed to University of Central Florida, and leads a group of returning starters on the line.
On the defensive side of the ball, is working on players that can play both sides of the ball.
The biggest thing Coach Pilcher wants from the community is the support of the team.
After what some people may call an “average” season, Valdosta Wildcats head coach Rance Gillespie addressed the crowd with a somber tone to open the day.
Gillespie was quick to say that last season, by far, was not the best in his term at VHS.
“At Valdosta, 7-4 is not acceptable, its not where we want to be and certainly not where we set out bar.”
He did state that the summer training has been very productive, for both the offense and defense.
The prior season defense boasted a younger line up. A majority of these players have returned and improved since last year.
The whole secondary is back and ready for action.
All three linebackers are returning. Leading the defense, senior linebacker Anthony Smith will be like a “quarterback” on the other side of the ball, as VHS hopes to improve upon their record from last season.
The Wildcats lost a lot of help on the offensive side of the ball, including two wideouts who caught a majority of the catches last season in addition to losing their two year starting quarterback.
Gillespie also noted that they are rebuilding their entire offensive line due to losing all five starters.
Bright spots on the offense however include two good running backs, who are both three year starters. Wide receiver Alex Cason is the clear leader of the wideout group.
“I don’t know if I have had a football team that has come this far in 21 years in coaching, that this team has come since spring ball,” said Gillespie.
Team has been participating in 7 on 7 tournaments throughout the summer.
The Wildcats will only have 19 seniors return.