With the last handful of spring games being played Friday and the 2022-23 school year coming to a close next week, high school football programs throughout Hall County are concluding one period of evaluation and preparation for the 2023 season and enter another.
And while those programs face unique situations heading into the summer 7-on-7 and camp season following the conclusion of spring practices, there seems to be a similar feeling of optimism throughout the county.
“Our goal this spring was just evaluating our guys based on the goal that we set at the end of last year,” said Flowery Branch head coach Jason Tester. “The mental (and physical) focus that we put on (the players) started in January – the mindset of just focusing on us.
“That’s what we were able to accomplish (this spring). Our kids played physical. All the mistakes that occurred are fixable mistakes. We came out of (spring practice) healthy and had some guys that we challenged on both sides of the ball. We want our best 11 on the field at all times, and our kids have taken to that (idea), and it shows.”
With soon-to-be graduated seniors leaving Hall programs and newcomers entering them, spring practices and games were also about teams getting to know each other all over again and making sure everyone is on the same page.
But for some programs, the spring period of getting used to new faces has been a two-way street.
At Chestatee, new head coach Stuart Cunningham got his first up-close look at his War Eagles, and vice versa.
And like Tester, he felt like he and his new team and new coaching staff got a lot accomplished during that initial look under formal practice and game-like conditions.
“You find out who can play at what positions,” Cunningham said. “Once you do play any kind of a game, you become a lot smarter about what to do with people. Maybe there’s somebody out of position, somebody who is (second- or third-team) might be better than that, or maybe someone who can play a lot might not (have been playing) as much.
“Just little things like that help the whole team get a little better and first learn a new system that is very different in some ways and similar in others just according to what phase you’re in. So we got a lot out of it. We didn’t get as much time as we wanted. We had one day where there were a couple of lightning delays, and a couple days that all the coaches couldn’t be there. So, we were rushed, but we did get a lot out of it.”
Meanwhile, while Tester returns as head coach at Flowery Branch, the Falcons spent a good portion of the spring getting used to a new offensive coordinator.
Michael Hill, who came across town after serving as Cherokee Bluff’s passing game coordinator last season, to fill the void left when Aaron Nance left to become head coach at East Hamilton High School in Ooltewah, Tenn.
In addition, Tester said a new defensive coordinator is expected to be in place as soon as next week.
But despite the adjustment period, Tester also was pleased with how the Falcons have adjusted to new voices in the locker room and new tweaks to both units.
And though he said he didn’t pay much attention to the score of Thursday’s spring game against White county, he saw a lot from players like rising seniors Josh Oliver at quarterback and Seth Larson at receiver, Cam Haynes and Frankie Perez and Jordan Elder at safety, plus rising junior receiver Jeremiah Ware and others that bodes well for the 2023 campaign.
That may be particularly the case for the offense after the Falcons scored on six possessions.
“The offensive line is probably the first thing that comes to mind,” Tester said. “Up front was really the big question. I think offensively, our guys did some good things. Defensively, there were some new faces there with a new or modified scheme. A lot of depth charts are starting to be solidified.”
Meanwhile, defense stood out in Chestatee’s scoreless tie with Oglethorpe County on Thursday, particularly given the weather conditions and the physicality of the game.
Still, Cunningham said he was pleased with what he saw out of quarterback Josh Kermode and the War Eagles offense, as well as the aforementioned physicality of the defense, and looks forward to see what kind of building blocks have been laid during the spring.
“I think it’s fair to say (that the defense is a little ahead of the offense right now), and the weather conditions weren’t great. I rained the entire game,” Cunningham said. “We were close (to scoring). We had one touchdown called back (on a penalty), and we were close to breaking a couple of plays.
“And we felt like our defense played pretty good. We did tons of things wrong, but we did play fast, and I thought we were a little more physical than I thought we would be. We were excited about that. We still have to see the film as group, but we were pleased with some of the things we saw.”
The spring games also gave the students and communities of Hall schools a sneak preview of what is to come from their teams in the fall.
Tester, for one, was very excited to see the enthusiasm from a fairly sizeable crowd at Flowery Branch despite a cool and damp night Thursday, which he thinks can carry over to his team as they prepare for the fall.
“Any chance you get to showcase your guys, it’s good,” Tester said. “In our community, we’ve got phenomenal support. There was a hunger at the end of last year, knowing it wasn’t the season (anyone wanted). We had no excuses for what happened. Our mindset was identifying areas that we need to improve if we want to be a consistent playoff team. … There are a lot of positive things.”