Football season has arrived and for players, coaches, and parents across the state, that can lead to a variety of emotions. At the risk of sounding sappy, I’m going to try to describe one of those emotions. It’s he one emotion I’m concerned with in this weekly column: Joy. The joy that is felt when the start of a weekend is met with two rivals battling it out on the neighborhood ball field. The joy of knowing that regardless of what is going on everywhere else in the world, the here and the now is right, and just, and exhilarating. It’s a feeling that can best be captured by sports and more specifically high school football. My goal is to give you, the reader, a list of the five games each week that best capture that emotion. This is not to say that my opinion is a definitive statement of fact. Call it a hunch. Call it a feeling. And after all, a feeling can be a powerful thing.
There are so many worthy games in Week 1 that it was difficult to narrow them down to only five. I gave it a shot anyway. Here are my games of the week in the mid-state in order starting with…
#1) LaVergne @ Smyrna
Great players? Check. Future high level D-1 players? Check. Great coaching? Check. Two teams and communities that don’t always get along? CHECK. This game has a little bit of everything and for that reason, it is my pick for Game of the Week in a crowded field of contenders. Smyrna returns five offensive starters from a team that advanced all the way to the 6A Quarterfinals before being eliminated by region rival Oakland. The Bulldogs have the luxury of having two future college football players as their main options. MTSU commit John Turner is back at QB after an impressive 2015 campaign. When Turner isn’t passing for 2,077 yards and 13 TDs, he’s handing the ball off to the dynamic Casey Perkins at running back. Perkins sports offers from MTSU, Southern Miss, Marshall, East Carolina, and Austin Peay among others. Head Coach Matt Williams raves about Perkins and his value to this Smyrna team. The Bulldogs return three defensive starters but possibly the biggest of those is a guy who didn’t start last year. Deylon Williams returns from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the entire 2015 season. The playmaking linebacker had 60 tackles in his sophomore campaign in 2014 and is a member of our Preseason Dream Team.
Head Coach Stanton Stevens and his LaVergne Wolverines are looking to contend for a 5A state championship and there’s no time like the present. Two current Wolverines will be Volunteers next season. Both Safety/WR Maleik Gray and LB/WR Princeton Fant committed to Butch Jones and the Vols. Gray can best be described as a playmaker. Where the ball goes, he goes. Fant is a little more difficult to figure out because he has battled the injury bug during his high school career including a torn ACL that kept him out the entire 2015 season. One thing that is not difficult to figure out is that Fant is an absolute beast physically. As Stanton Stevens describes it, “50/50 balls become 75/25 balls when thrown in Princeton’s direction”. Junior QB KeiAnthony Conner hopes that Coach Stevens proves prophetic as he looks to lead the Wolverine attack through the air. Conner passed for 824 yards and 6 TDs in 2015. The offensive line is in good standing with Tre’Von Etter, Brandon Williams, and Caleb Staten and their combined 920 pounds leading the way. Look for a great atmosphere and game in Smyrna tonight as these two hopeful contenders face a huge early season test.
#2) Brentwood @ Independence
The TV lights will be shining on this Williamson County showdown as MyTV30 will premiere their season of “Friday Night Rivals” with two teams looking to have some questions answered. The main question for Independence and Head Coach Scott Blade is what their offense will look like after the loss of Andrew Bunch at QB and Nate Johnson at WR. Bunch is continuing his career at Scottsdale (AZ) CC while Nate Johnson is running routes under the watchful (and khaki’d) eye of Jim Harbaugh. The questions surrounding Independence don’t stem from lack of options or coaching ability. Scott Blade has shown a consistent ability to blend his system with the skill set of his teams and bring about strong results. That’s good news because this roster still has a lot of talent. That talent just needs to separate itself. It looks like that’s the case at QB. Brandon Hines, Ryan Smith, and Nathan Cisco battled it out this offseason but it appears Brandon Hines is firmly in command of the position going into the opener. The best all-around weapon for the Eagles will be the versatile Landon Guidry. The Mississippi State commit will do a little bit of everything for Independence on offense, defense, and special teams.
For Brentwood and Head Coach Ron Crawford the question isn’t “if?” but “how long?” will it take Brentwood to get back to the promised land. Crawford’s system works and he has proven it time and time again. He is looking to prove it in his second stint as head coach of the Bruins. A steady and lengthy receiving core could get Brentwood there faster than expected. Will Leone, Christian LaBreche, and Parker Bullion look to be game breakers for the Bruin attack. Leone is the burner of the group at 5;10, 175 and at 6;6 and 6;4 respectively, LaBreche and Bullion will win their fair share of jump balls. Matt Phillips will get the bulk of the carries at running back. Don’t sleep on the Bruins’ kicking game. Senior Tucker Day may be the best high school punter in America and can steal points with his ability to hit long field goals. Something else you will see at this game is support. These Williamson County schools pack both sides of the bleachers for most games and this one will be no different. Head down I-840 for a great atmosphere tonight and if you can’t make it out, turn to MyTV30 at 7pm and watch Brent Dougherty and Jonathan Hutton on the call.
#3) Maplewood @ Stratford
Full disclosure: I love both of these coaches. I had the pleasure of spending an entire radio segment with Maplewood Head Coach Arecentae Broome on Wednesday night (you can hear it here) and I never come away disappointed after a conversation with him. He does a great job of articulating both the challenges and advantages of coaching at a Metro school. You could argue that no man alive has the level of experience with both than his coaching counterpart in the opener, Maurice Fitzgerald. Coach Fitzgerald experienced great success over his 19 years as head man at Pearl-Cohn winning back-to-back state titles in 1996 and 1997. Coach Fitzgerald inherited a struggling Stratford program that won only 7 games over 3 seasons prior to his arrival. The turnaround began immediately. The Spartans went 7-3 in the regular season and won a playoff game before falling to eventual state runner-up CPA. Stratford lost a lot off of that successful 2015 team but will add TJ Carter as a transfer from Hendersonville. The former Commando is a dynamic 3-star recruit that can carry a team on his back. With the new infusion of talent and a newfound winning attitude, anything is possible at Stratford.
Questions abound at Maplewood. Can they rebound from a 3-8 season a year ago? Will guys come back healthy and focused after a litany of injuries forced guys to the sideline in street clothes a year go? Who will play QB? The one constant with Maplewood is the steadiness of Coach Broome. Defensively, Maplewood should give opponents problems with a feisty and active secondary led by Deshawn Johnson, Yusuf Ali, and Bo Hodges. They will need a huge effort from those three as well as their front 7 if they hope to slow down the Spartan attack led by Carter. “The Battle of East Nashville” will be worth seeing.
#4) Gallatin @ Mt. Juliet
Saying this is a “big season” for Mt. Juliet is an understatement. The Golden Bears are ready to take the next step and need to in 2016. Trey Perry has done a nice job at MJ. He is one of the more thoughtful and diligent high school coaches you will ever meet. The guy cares deeply about his players and his program. That attention to detail has helped produce one of the top strength programs in the state led by strength coach Curtis Grah. The work in the weight room shows up with the size and strength of the Bears’ offensive line led by 6;5, 275lb D.J. Dehlfendahl (A Preseason Dream Team) selection. Justin Satterfield (6;7, 311), Jacob Parker (6;3, 281), Cade Hoppe (6;2, 276), and Drew Tompkins (6;1, 288) round out a formidable line. It won’t be easy for Mt. Juliet as they play in one of the toughest regions in the state. If they are going to reach their potential and contend for the region championship with the likes of defending state champion Ravenwood, then they need to take care of 5A opponents like….
The Gallatin Green Wave come in to this game with a lot of uncertainty but one enormous, incontrovertible fact: Jordan Mason can play. Head Coach Mark Williams will rely heavily on the 6;1, 205 workhorse running back. The Green Wave come into this game trying to improve on their 4-6 record a year ago. Knocking off 6A Mt. Juliet would send a big statement to the rest of Region 6-5A. This game lacks some of the old bitterness that persisted when these two were long time region rivals but there is still no love lost between these two towns. Arrive early if you want a seat for this one.
#5) White House @ White House-Heritage
One of the more incredible stats you will see is this: White House head coach Jeff Porter had his first ever losing season in 2015. He has been the head man at White House for 29 years. Something tells me that didn’t sit well with him. Something tells me that didn’t sit well with everyone associated with Blue Devil Football. Something tells me that will turnaround this season.
A team that’s not in need of a turnaround is White House-Heritage. The Patriots went 9-4 a year ago and made it to the 3rd round of the 3A playoffs before losing a hard fought game to state power CPA. 1st year head coach Hunter Hicks takes over for the only coach the school has known (Pat Brown). Hicks is familiar with Brown’s program as he moves up from his previous post as Patriots’ Offensive Coordinator. WH-Heritage begins a treacherous stretch to start the season tonight with rival White House followed by defending 1A state champion Nashville Christian and 3A nemesis CPA. They will have to go on that run while replacing virtually every starter on both sides of the ball. Like most opening games tonight, there are a lot of unknowns, but maybe none more than this game. That intrigue combined with a healthy amount of neighborly animosity should lead to a great atmosphere tonight at White House-Heritage.
Have fun out there tonight and remember to listen to 104.5 The Zone for all of your Friday night high school football coverage.