Hall County is blessed with tremendous high school football coaches and athletes.
They were all represented at the third edition of Times Sports Media Day on Wednesday at the Gainesville Civic Center.
For the first time since 2019, every coach from the 11 high schools in Hall County were able to give us all a taste of what to watch for with their respective squads in 2021. The common sentiment from the 11 head coaches and 22 players (two from each team) who went in front of the camera was a sigh of relief that things are back to normal after 2020 was greatly impacted by coronavirus restrictions.
In 2021, we’ve been assured that it’s business as usual on Fridays in the fall with the eight Hall County Schools, Gainesville High and Hall’s three private schools (Riverside Military, Lakeview Academy and Lanier Christian). Stadiums will allow full capacity. No social distancing will be required. Fans, who feel safer doing so, can still wear a face mask.
Now that Times Sports Media Day is in the books, and everyone has had their say, here’s five things we learned.
1. GRATITUDE FOR STADIUM UPGRADES: Five Hall County schools (West Hall, Chestatee, Cherokee Bluff, East Hall and Johnson) will have pristine new synthetic playing surfaces that are durable and easy on the eyes.
The new playing surfaces at Johnson and Cherokee Bluff are the closest to complete. All, when asked, gave the improvements a huge thumbs up. Kids, naturally, want to play on fields like they see guys in college and the NFL get out and play on every week. The coaches were mindful to thank the Hall County School System for its continued support of athletics.
Unpredictable weather (except lightning delays) will no longer hinder teams from taking the field. Players have a new sense of pride in suiting up where there’s a new sparkle to the playing field.
West Hall cornerback Jaden White was visibly excited and spoke of his anticipation when asked what it means to have a state-of-the-art facility for his final season of high school. They join North Hall, which has had a synthetic playing field for two years now, thanks to private funding.
In 2022, Flowery Branch High will go to the synthetic surface.
2. PRIVATE SCHOOLS WILL PACK A PUNCH: Two legendary coaches and a return to the field in 2021 for the other private school in Hall County has plenty of energy circulating about the upcoming season.
First-year Lanier Christian Academy coach Bruce Miller, who spent 18 years as head coach at Gainesville High, was all smiles when talking about working as a head coach with the Lightning. Miller, who guided the Red Elephants to the Class 5A state crown in 2012, has traded in being the man in charge at a school with high expectations for working with a program in a league that plays eight-man football — a style that fits his pass-happy approach to offense.
Lakeview Academy is just as much as a draw in 2021 with second-year coach Lee Shaw back after leading its program to the postseason for the first time in school history last season. The Lions also have a refurbished stadium, that debuted in 2020, and plans for future additions, Shaw said.
During his public-school coaching career, Shaw was the architect behind the success at Flowery Branch High (2002-2011) and put Rabun County (2012-2018) back on the map as a state-title contender.
As for Riverside Military Academy, the Eagles are just elated to play football again in 2021, after 2020 was cancelled due to the school’s concerns about the coronavirus. Eagles head coach Nick Garrett has things running as smoothly, as possible, with defensive coordinator Jason Pleasant rejoining the program after a season at Cherokee Bluff, along with a supportive interim athletics director Mark DeFoor, who is also the new vice president of Riverside Military Academy.
Garrett was so eager for Media Day that he brought one of their helmets to display on the table during his school’s turn at the table.
3. HEATH WEBB IS CONSISTENT IN RECOGNIZING LINEMEN: Gainesville head coach Heath Webb calls it ‘Love a Lineman’. For the third straight year at Media Day, the Red Elephants’ coach was accompanied by a couple of his big guys who play in the trenches: this time around, senior defensive lineman Khaliq Maddox and senior offensive lineman Elijah Ruiz.
Both were on hand because they’re talented technicians at their trade. However, they were also well spoken in what it means to play at Gainesville High and the anticipation for opening the season that starts at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 20 in the Corky Kell Classic against Johns Creek at City Park Stadium. Webb, going into Year 4 with the Red Elephants, has created an enthusiastic culture around the Red Elephants, which is necessary playing against six Forsyth County schools in Region 6-7A — one of the most evenly talented from top to bottom in all of the state.
4. REGION 7-3A IS GOING TO BE A BATTLE: Right now, Cherokee Bluff is the team to beat after going 10-2 and winning Region 7-3A crown in 2020, and picking up a victory in its first playoff game in school history. However, the Bears will have a stiff challenge from North Hall, which has been region runner-up and a second-round playoff team in 2019 and 2020.
Also, much buzz is abound about West Hall with its talented senior class and a 4-6 mark in 2020. The Spartans return workhorse running back Tilil Blackwell and White in the secondary, among other talented starters who have lots of varsity playing experience.
Fourth-year West Hall coach Krofton Montgomery was cautiously optimistic about his program, speaking at Media Day, but definitely feels confident that the Spartans have a chance to be one of the four playoff teams in November.
5. JOHNSON, CHESTATEE BOTH HAVE PEP IN THEIR STEP: Both winless last season, the Knights and War Eagles are preparing for ample progress, which was on display during their speaking segments at Media Day. Second-year Johnson coach William Harrell came sharply dressed in a suit and tie to talk about his group, led by two-way starters Jake Shaw and Trey Jackson.
Harrell knows about building a program, having had success coaching at Hephzibah before coming to Oakwood.
At Chestatee, players are enthused about a chance at turning things around, led by Luke Bornhorst and Drew Knickle on Media Day. War Eagles coach Shaun Conley is steadfast about his players progress and their development during the offseason.