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Murphy: New coaches energize Hall football teams

POSTED: August 26, 2012 8:18 p.m.

First-year West Hall coach Tony Lotti roams the school’s practice field wearing a shirt that speaks volumes to his vision for the program. The shirt itself isn’t the eye catcher. It’s a standard gray T-shirt with the Spartans logo imprinted near the top. However, it’s what is below the Spartan head that everyone will notice. Pressed in black numbers that are big enough to see from a distance, it reads 11-16-12.

Of course, that’s a date he wants everyone to remember. No, it’s not some kind of political statement.

Lotti is thinking big in his first season and wants the players to remember that date, the Friday of the first round of the state playoffs. He fully expects West Hall to have a game to prepare for that week.

It’s a school where football success has been absent over the past decade, and where the last four coaches before Lotti arrived at the school came and went without a trip to the playoffs. The Spartans’ (0-1) new coach wants to bring in the change to West Hall, which last made the playoffs in 2002.

The Spartans are not alone in having a big boost in optimism as a new sheriff roams the sidelines. All three high schools in South Hall have a new coach in 2012. Flowery Branch made the only internal hire, promoting former defensive coordinator Chris Griffin into the top spot after a long and successful run by former coach Lee Shaw, now at Rabun County.

Riverside Military also has a new coach with former assistant coach Gary Downs, who returned after a five-year stint at another school. The Eagles were as desperate for a fresh start as any, with a steady decline in the program since making the playoffs in Class AA in 2009, and four head coaches coming and going from the private military school since Downs was on staff with Doug Dixon during Riverside’s extended string of success in the middle part of the last decade.

Despite the drastic turnover that Riverside experiences in player personnel from season to season, Downs knows that success is possible in the long run.

Johnson’s (1-0) new coach Jason Roquemore has the toughest job of all among the new coaches in Hall County.No coach ever took over a winless program without the understanding that it would take time to get back to prominence.

However, the Knights took a big step forward by snapping a 12-game losing streak with a 19-13 victory over West Hall in last Friday’s Battle of Oakwood at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium. Despite not winning a game in 2011, Johnson fans did their part to pack the stadium. I have to believe the optimism of having a new coach in charge on both sidelines had a lot to do with that excitement.

The good news for Johnson is that it has one of the most talented athletes in Hall County, senior running back/linebacker Cedric Harris, who stuck it out and will finish out his career where it started. During Harris’ first game of his senior campaign, he put the Knights on his back with a pair of touchdown runs.

Afterward, Johnson fans were in a frenzy celebrating a win over their archrival, as well as trying to put some painful seasons in the background.

The only bad news is that the Knights aren’t eligible for the postseason for the next two seasons, as a result of taking on a nonregion schedule last spring. I couldn’t detect that made a dent in any of the Johnson fans’ and players’ enthusiasm for the future of the program. If anything, they are now more eager than ever.

While the nonregion schedule allows Johnson to schedule more games it can potentially win, building up enough depth to become consistent again will remain the great unknown for now.

If Roquemore can win five games his first season at Johnson, it will then be a resounding success.

All of the new coaches in Hall County have high hopes for their program. Griffin is the only one of the group that is trying to continue a winning tradition that he inherited.

We should wish them all the best of luck.

Bill Murphy is a sports writer for The Times. Contact him at bmurphy@gainesvilletimes.com.


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