by Rob Grubbs & Riley Hicks
The 2018 football season is right around the corner, bringing with it a load of excitement surrounding each Fayette team.
Before the season officially kicks off, each school came together for the first-ever Fayette County Media Day on Saturday at Fayette County High School. The teams brought out their best players and staked their claim to having the best season possible.
Starr’s Mill is looking to build off an 11-2 campaign and a Region 3 AAAAA championship crown. Whitewater, McIntosh, and Fayette County are back to battle for region supremacy. Sandy Creek is hunting for a playoff spot after a sitting home last season. Finally, Our Lady of Mercy looks to find momentum under a new coaching staff.
Fayette County Tigers
The Fayette County Tigers, who are coached by Mike Davis, were represented by senior tight end Shane Leinberger, junior quarterback JeKobe Coleman, and senior receiver/cornerback Reggie Booker. The Tigers were unsuccessful in making the playoffs last year, so this season they decided to change things up and go in a different direction.
“After the season was over we talked about changing the culture,” Davis said. “We actually took a trip to Florida to play my old high school, which was a good team bonding time. It was about time we did things a little bit different and stir the pot. I am looking to have some big changes this year and [the players] have bought in.”
One of the biggest issues that Fayette had in previous seasons was a slow start. Along with the idea of changing the culture, the coaches decided to have a scrimmage game against Sandy Creek to jump-start the players before opening a tough schedule.
“It’s all about getting that first hit in,” Leinberger said. “You’re tired of always going against the same guys on your team, so once you get that first hit in, it kind of hits you the season’s real and we go from there.”
When it’s finally time to snap the ball, Fayette will only see one guy behind center, JeKobe Coleman. He has taken ownership of the job, and the team believes he can be the guy to carry them to victory.
“I am very comfortable now and have more weapons, and I take what the defense gives me,” Coleman said. “We have two younger quarterbacks (backing me up), so I try to teach them what I know just in case I get hurt, I can trust them to win the game and get it done.”
When the whistle blows in two weeks expect to see a brand-new Tiger team take the field.
Head Coach Lee Belknap has created the most successful run of football at McIntosh since it opened in 1982. Last year, they fought through injuries and adversity to qualify for the state playoffs for the second time in four years. Even after heartbreaking losses to Fayette County and Starr’s Mill, along with losing their best running back to injury, Coach Belknap kept the team fighting and qualified for the 11th game.
On last season’s playoff run, Belknap said, “It’s like winning the three-legged race in the 3rd grade, no one cares anymore, but we are excited about the nucleus that is coming back on offense and defense. This team is similar to last year and they are very connected. In our program, nothing is more important than your preparation, how much you care about each other, and getting the job done.”
While graduation took some key components from last year’s squad, Belknap has the luxury of welcoming back the 2017 Fayette County Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Dane Kinamon to lead the squad. Kinamon took over the offense last year and thrived in Belknap’s system. His quick decision-making and hard-nosed style were a perfect fit for the offense. The Air Force Academy commit looks to improve on last year’s numbers.
“We have a lot of our receivers coming back, and the game has slowed down. I have a better feel for the game, so I will be a lot more comfortable.”
Also returning is all-purpose athlete Ryan Cate, who Belknap calls his “Swiss Army Knife.” Cate showed his versatility last year by scoring 6 receiving touchdowns and 3 rushing touchdowns. His speed and toughness will be an integral part of the offense. With their top rusher from last year lost to graduation, the Chiefs will go with more a committee approach at running back, but with the dual threat of Kinamon, the position will look to be just as productive as ever.
The defense will be led by returning starters at linebacker in Ryan Seigel and Ryan Sanders. They look to lead an opportunist defense that will make the stops needed to give the ball back to Kinamon.
The program is on solid ground and Belknap looks to increase the expectations and make another playoff run.
Sandy Creek Patriots
The unthinkable happened last year when the Sandy Creek Patriots missed the state playoffs for the first time in 15 years. Head coach Brett Garvin has a simple philosophy of making a return: “Work Harder.”
“We played a lot of young players last year. We were really young, we only had a handful of seniors, but our biggest class last year were the sophomores,” Garvin said. “They are a year older and now have experience in our program.”
The combination of youth, a coaching change, and a rugged region schedule were just too many obstacles to overcome in 2017, but those players have grown up, and this year’s team is ready to start a new playoff streak.
On offense, Rashad Amos looks to get a majority of the carries this year as the Patriots convert from an I-Formation team to the spread offense. With experience at most of the skill positions, Garvin added, “We have made more progress on working in our offense since mid-June than we did the six months previous.”
A defensive backfield led by Brian Branch and Stanford commit Nicholas Toomer will be the focus of the defense as they bring experience and big play ability. They got their licks last year against a tough region slate, that included the top-ranked Trevor Lawrence who is now at Clemson.
“Last year was a great learning experience for us, we saw a lot of things that will make us a better defense this year,” said Branch.
Lessons learned can be painful, but the road for Sandy Creek looks much brighter in the years ahead.
Starr’s Mill Panthers
The Starr’s Mill Panthers have been the definition of consistency since their first season in 1998. A senior-laden team last year took them to new heights as they won back-to-back region championships for the first time in school history. They also made their fourth straight state playoff appearance.
The offense last season was built around a stable of running backs and an efficient quarterback who always seemed to push the right buttons. Only one of those offense weapons is back in running back Kalen Sims who used his explosive burst of speed at the line of scrimmage to break off big chunks of yardage. Taking controls of the quarterback position is junior Hunter Lawson, who has added speed to the ball-control offense.
On his young team, Coach Chad Phillips, who has the longest tenure in the county, said, “We lost 17 seniors from last year’s team, and we don’t know what’s going to happen when the new guys play, but we do know they have worked very hard for the opportunity.”
One weapon that Phillips has is Michael Lantz, who has one of the most explosive legs in the nation. The flexibility allows Phillips and his staff the flexibility of knowing they are in scoring position anytime they can get over the opponent’s 30-yard line.
At Starr’s Mill, tradition never graduates, so look for Phillips’s young team get up to speed quickly and push for the top spot for the third season in a row.
The Whitewater Wildcats and head coach Bryan Holley brought junior quarterback Maddox Mueller, senior linebacker Will Lewis, and senior receiver Hunter Williams to the podium. The Wildcats are looking their first playoff win and region title under Holley. What should help out their cause is having Mueller in his second year under center.
“Anytime a coach has returning players, especially ones with a lot of playing experience, you’re not having to train up with somebody new. You don’t have to start at ground zero,” Holley said. “Having game experience, they know what it’s about, and it’s not a big shock to them anymore and that’s comforting.”
To accomplish their goal of getting that playoff win, the players think that it will come down to how well they play for one another.
“The thing we have never had at Whitewater is we have never been a family,” Lewis said. “We have never come together as a big group, and this year we are really molding together.”
The target is locked on the Wildcats with a number of key returning starters but the team looks forward to the fight ahead.
“We are ready, and we want the challenge, we love competition,” Williams said.
Our Lady of Mercy Bobcats
Transition is the key word for the Our Lady of Mercy Bobcats this season. After a playoff run last year, offseason turmoil has left the team without several anticipate stars and last year’s coach, but the Bobcats won’t back down.
What the program needed was an experienced calming influence to pick up the pieces and chart a course back towards consistency, and coach Mark Miller filled the bill perfectly. Miller brings nine years of head coaching experience from Woodward Academy and Strong Rock Christian where he notched 50 career wins. Most recently, he was an assistant at Landmark Christian for three years.
“Football at the Single-A Level is very competitive. There’s a lot of good football players and talent, and it’s a lot more intimate than the bigger classifications. I am really excited to get this opportunity,” Miller said.
What the Bobcats lost in talent during the transition, they plan on making things up with a tightness and cohesiveness that is built around the players that returned.
Colin Schmitz leads the way on the squad.
“We are a very tight group of guys,” Schmitz said. “There are a lot of younger guys this year, so we have to find a way to tap into those relationships. We need to learn how to get the best out of each other.”
With a small roster heading into preseason camp, conditioning and patience on going to be key requirements to get through this rebuilding season.