SHANE SHOEMAKER – Sports Writer
For South Pittsburg head football coach Wes Stone, leaving last year behind hasn’t been easy.
In the second round of last year’s Class 1A State Playoffs, the Pirates football team found themselves back in familiar territory, yet with an unfamiliar result.
The Region 3-1A champions were upset by Gordonsville, 14-7. Gordonsville would lose the next week in the quarterfinals to the runner-up state champions, Clay County.
South Pittsburg had won the last five meetings against Gordonsville, going back to 2018. Their second-round playoff loss was the first against the Tigers since 2012, when they likewise lost in the second round of the playoffs, then by one point, 14-13.
“That game bothers me. It will always bother me,” Stone said, referring to the 2022 matchup. “When the last game of the year doesn’t end the way we’d like for it to around here … it just bothers you. It bothered me for a long time in the offseason. We’ve put it on the backburner now.”
For Stone and his 2023 Pirates squad, moving on is all about getting stronger, getting more physical, so that some of the woes of last year don’t repeat themselves.
The Pirates only allowed one defensive touchdown in last year’s game against Gordonsville. It wasn’t that they couldn’t stop the Tigers; they stopped themselves because they couldn’t run the ball effectively.
For what has historically always been known as a heavy running team, South Pittsburg threw the ball more than they ran it last season – 2,163 passing to 1,838 rushing – becoming one-dimensional when games mattered the most, Stone said.
“We weren’t able to run the football last year. We weren’t able to run the football because we were physical enough, we weren’t strong enough. For years, we were known as a running team. Last year, we could only throw the football effectively. When it really mattered, a team could challenge us – we couldn’t run the football.”
Although the Pirates weren’t in a hurry to get to the offseason, not progressing in last year’s playoffs helped them begin their quest for this season. They had time to finally implement their entire year-around program under Stone, something that had ultimately been missing over the last three seasons.
Stone and staff started in December of last year, meeting with every kid that wanted to play, and as soon as school started back in January, “we hit the ground running, four days a week lifting and running,” Stone said.
Stone is only entering his second full season as head coach for the Pirates. In the midst of the 2020 season, which already had increasing challenges with the looming pandemic that required teams and schools to meet certain guides and regulations, then-head Coach Chris Jones abruptly left after just one game to go back to the Canadian Football League.
Stone and athletic director and assistant principal Heath Grider quickly took on the duties as co-head coach and eventually led the Pirates to their sixth state championship that season.
But as surprising and momentous as that season was, the Pirates football program has been trying to catch-up ever since.
Stone didn’t accept the head coaching job until early March of last year, and before that, Jones hadn’t accepted the job until April the season before, which, again, was the pandemic season. In all that time, there was a substantial loss of off season workouts and system implementation.
This year, however, with a full season under his belt, with nothing like bothersome pandemic regulations to follow or other hindrances, Stone said there’s been a much smoother transition heading into this season.
“For the first time in three years, we felt like everything wasn’t rushed and packed into something,” Stone said. “We didn’t have as many moving parts. We were able to get it ready over time. It has been much smoother and easier and it’s slowed down here in the last six or seven months.”
Stone mentioned this will be the first time his group of seniors will have a full cycle to train and fully prepare themselves.
“We put a big emphasis on our offseason program on getting stronger,” Stone said. “I was telling the seniors before the season started that this is going to be the toughest offseason, the toughest grind you’ve been through in your high school career.”
It’ll be a talented senior group that South Pittsburg is bringing back this season, led by the likes of QB/DB Kamden Wellington, TE/LB Jamarion Farrior, WR/LB Logan Harris and WR/DB Racash Kelly, who are all three-year starters.
“I really feel like, with our team, it starts with those four guys because they’ve been starters longer than anybody,” Stone said. “They’re great leaders.”
The Pirates will be bringing back a total of eight defensive starters and five offensive starters, with a total of 13 seniors, 5 juniors, 17 sophomores and 13 freshmen overall.
This will be the group that Stone takes with him as they battle for their 16th region title and seventh state title. Because that’s the standard at South Pittsburg, according to Stone.
“We want to play in the last game. The expectation is to be playing in the last game, in Chattanooga,” Stone said. “The expectation is we’re playing in the final game, with a chance to win the State Championship.”
Story includes Duane Sherrill photos and is the first of a three-part series highlighting the football teams in Marion County.