OOLTEWAH, Tenn. (WRCB) -- East Hamilton's warm welcome to District 5-AAA came in the form of a bulls eye at Thursday's league media day.
The Hurricanes, who are moving up from District 6-AA after a run to the Class 4A state quarterfinals last fall, were tabbed as the preseason favorite in voting by both media and coaches to win Chattanooga's largest district in their debut year.
"This region is tough and it just got tougher with East Hamilton coming in," said Walker Valley head coach Glen Ryan. "But ultimately that's what you want. It may lead to a few more sleepless nights for some of us coaches in preparing for them, but it makes me really excited as far as the football aspect is concerned."
Depth is head coach Ted Gatewood's primary concern as his team learns to play week in and week out against the largest schools in the state. However, from top-to-bottom his starting lineups return the most talent.
The Hurricanes must replace only all-state tailback Logan Jackson and a trio of lineman from last year's 11-2 squad, while returning almost every piece from one of the area's most dominant defenses.
"One of the biggest things we talk to our kids about is not living in the past," Gatewood, whose team was a unanimous No. 1 pick in the media poll. "What happened last year happened last year. This is a chance for this team to make its mark on the program.
"We're excited for the challenge. Moving up and playing in this district will give our kids a chance to measure themselves against the best in the area."
East Hamilton was one of four teams to receive at least one first-place vote in the coaches poll, as was Bradley Central.
The Bears were tabbed to finish second by the media but fourth by coaches after losing four-year starter Bryce Copeland at quarterback.
"I was obviously used to having Bryce. He's started for me since he was a freshman," said head coach Damon Floyd. "It's very different not having him out there, especially considering how great a leader he was and everything he was able to do for our program off the field."
However, Floyd doesn't expect much of a drop in production on the field with new signal caller Brett Standifer. The strong-armed senior has started the last three years at Soddy-Daisy, and has already had plenty of time to work with the district's top receiving corps that's led by Dee Crisp and Cal Pickel.
"I think that's the good thing about Brett is he has a lot of experience and has run a similar offense," Floyd said. "When he came in he was competing with four other guys for the job, but he's really stood out through summer work and seven-on-sevens.
"He's going to be our guy."
New Ooltewah coach Mac Bryan is lucky enough to know "his guy" under center as well this early in preseason camp. Starter Brody Binder returns at quarterback to join senior running back Desmond Pittman in leading the extremely young Owls.
"They're learning as they go, but we do have some experience in key spots with a quarterback who is a senior and a running back who is a senior," Bryan said. "I wish I could have 40 seniors every year, but we've only got 16 right now."
Despite the turn-over and the coaching change, league coaches picked Ooltewah to finish runner-up in Bryan's first year. The veteran coach is installing an up-tempo spread attack that will push the pace and take advantage of the Owls' raw athleticism.
"We're young and we're not very big, but we've got some talented kids who can run," said Bryan, whose team was tabbed third by the media. "Depth is always a concern, so we'll need some kids to step up. They'll just have to grow up in a hurry."
Ron Crawford is hopeful his defense grew up a lot in the past eight months after Cleveland missed the playoffs with a disappointing 5-5 mark.
"We were good enough offensively but we couldn't hold up the bargain on the defensive side," said Crawford, whose team was picked to finish third in the coaches poll and fourth in the media poll. "We couldn't stop a hard-marching man last year in the run game. I think the kid from McMinn wishes he could play us every week.
"Our improvement has to come there."
The offense figures to be just as potent with senior quarterback Austin Herink back under center. The Blue Raiders lose do-it-all receiver/running back C.J. Bryant, but return eight starters on both sides of the ball.
"I'm pretty sure they didn't bring me in to have another 5-5 season," Crawford said. "We're still building but we need to be better. Cleveland has been riding this wave of ups and downs the past decade, but hopefully we won't have many of those downs anymore."
Bo Cagle fears that's exactly what awaits defending champ McMinn County this fall after the Cherokees graduated more than a dozen starters, including 1,000-yard rusher Kelvin Wells, Jr. all but one of the area's most dominant front seven on defense.
"We had a really good group of guys up front last year and a good set of linebackers, but they're all gone now," Cagle said. "We'll have to find kids to step into those roles, but we'll need to step it up offensively as well. We're not going to be able to run it whenever we want to like we have the last few years."
McMinn County does return talented tailback Dre Sanders, who split carries with Wells last year, but will have few easy opportunities to develop talent around him with a non-district schedule that includes Alcoa, McCallie and Oak Ridge.
"We're not going to be the most talented and we're not going to do the right thing 100-percent of the time, but the one thing we can do is play hard," Cagle said. "That's one thing they've always done at McMinn County and one thing we can control, so we'll have these kids giving their all every day."
Walker Valley broke through with a surprising 5-5 record en route to just its second playoff appearance in school history last fall, yet Glen Ryan says the Mustangs' rebuild is far from finished.
He expects a few growing pains again this year with a roster that has just nine seniors and only one starter returning at the same position on offense.
"It's good compared to what the program was, but 5-5 is not turning it around," he said. "We've always been the doormat, so maybe it's good that we were picked to finish sixth this year instead of seventh. But we still have a long way to go to get up there with that elite group of teams in this district."
Soddy-Daisy has an even longer road back to the top with new head coach Justin Barnes replacing Kevin Orr.
The former Red Bank and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga quarterback has found a replacement for Standifer in junior quarterback Hunter Maynard and inherits an experienced offensive line, but still has plenty of question marks on a roster of nearly 80 kids.
"I'll go ahead and tell you that in our coaches poll I put us last. Until we prove something, that's where we belong," Barnes said. "We are focused on ourselves and making our team better every day. What we need to do is begin setting the foundation to bring that Trojan pride back to that school."
Cleveland will take the field first from the district this season, opening against McCallie on Thursday, August 22.
District 5-AAA Preseason Coaches Poll
1. East Hamilton
4. Bradley Central
5. McMinn County
6. Walker Valley
District 5-AAA Preseason Media Poll
1. East Hamilton
2. Bradley Central
5. McMinn County
6. Walker Valley
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