SHANE SHOEMAKER – Sports Writer
For the first time in five years, the Whitwell football program has what they feel like is a promising team that can win a region title, and hopefully more.
Whitwell finished last season with an overall 9-3 record, an improvement from their 6-4 season the year prior, with only one region loss. That loss? To cross-town rival South Pittsburg, 40-15.
For the last two seasons, that game has essentially determined who the Region 3 1-A champions would be. And it has a great chance to do so again this season.
The schedulers even set the game up perfectly, having the Tigers and Pirates face off against each in the last regular season game on a Thursday night in late October, where all the focus will be on them.
“I think it will determine the region this year,” junior quarterback Brandon Easterly said.
But instead of looking ahead, Head Coach Rocky Stephenson is keeping his quarterback and the rest of his team focused, patient, and taking it one game at a time.
“It’s an old cliché, but one game at a time; try to win them all,” Stephenson said. “That’s our goal. Each week will have its own challenge.”
Stephenson, a Whitwell lifer going all the way back to being a player and assistant coach, will be entering his second year as head man. He’ll be leaning on a more experienced, close-knit group of players this year to navigate through the season.
“This group of players, juniors and seniors, I have, they’ve played little league together, middle school,” Stephenson said. “They are tight-bonded and they’re real football smart. They’re easy to coach; they’re self-motivated. They show up for practice, they work hard – they have a good work ethic. And good kids. I’m happy to have this bunch.”
Easterly, and fellow junior running back Wyatt Davis, are two of those experienced players that Stephenson will be relying on this season. Both firmly believe this team is coming together, learning from the mistakes of last year.
“We were kind of separated last year, and I think it just had us make more mistakes as a team,” Davis said. “And I think the closer we come together, the better we’ll play.”
Easterly, who was injured midway through the season last year with a leg injury, agrees that bonding has been a crucial part of the growth of this year’s Tigers team, making them a more cohesive unit.
“We’ve just bonded more as a team [this year],” Easterly said. “I felt like last year we just kind of had a separation. More of like upperclassmen were separated from underclassmen. So, I think if we bond together as a team, we got some underclassmen that can help us out a lot this year.”
The Tigers will begin their season on Aug. 18, when they travel to face the Huntland Hornets.