By Nathan Berg
Chestatee head coach Shaun Conley feels a change in the winds when it comes to War Eagles athletics. Conley was brought in in 2016 after Chestatee won just one game in 2014 and was winless in 2015. The War Eagles have won four games in each of Conley’s first two seasons at the helm, including a playoff appearance in 2016.
And Conley said the team is only getting better.
“The culture of Chestatee High School, I think, has changed,” he said. “I’ve began to see, maybe not ‘Poor old Chestatee’ anymore.”
Last season, Chestatee’s promising 4-2 start to the season was derailed as three starters went down with injuries in two consecutive games — a comeback victory over Habersham Central to get the team to 4-2 and a loss against West Hall in the Region 7-4A opener.
Conley said all three players played on both sides of the ball as well as special teams, so “it was almost like we lost nine players.”
Coming into the year, Conley was faced with graduating seniors from the 2017 squad. Both quarterback Storm Yarbrough and running back Nick Lyles — who racked up more than 2,500 yards over his last two years with the program — graduated.
Chestatee also lost some key pieces on defense, including linebacker Reggie James and defensive coordinator Artie Ulmer.
Despite the departures, the team angles to improve upon its 0-4 region record of a season ago and get back into the playoffs for the second time in three years.
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Chestatee will run a spread offense, but Conley said he’s hoping to run as balanced an offense as possible, so expect a mixed bag from the War Eagles offensively this season.
Although Yarbrough will no longer be with the team, Conley does return some experience at quarterback, as Christian Charles — who started the final three games of last season — will step in as the starter. According to Conley, Charles can gain yardage in a variety of ways, adding another dimension to the team’s offense.
“He can hurt you with his feet as well as his arm,” Conley said.
The competition for lead running back will be a bit more closely contested.
Conley expects a pair of sophomores — Caleb Chiles and Wesley Perez — to play the roles of thunder and lightning, respectively, in the War Eagle backfield. Do-it-all athlete Hunter Chambers could also see some work at running back, but Conley hopes Chiles and Perez will get most of the production, allowing Chambers to focus on defense.
In terms of receiving, Conley said he expects Seth Pressley and Bryson Nowlin to be his most dangerous deep threats. Chambers should also see some work catching the ball out of the backfield.
Conley said he hopes for the offensive line to be his strongest unit, headlined by seniors Josh Hamilton and Eduardo Jordan as well as newcomer Will Cantrell, who Conley is hoping to have a big year.
War Eagles athletic director Ben Corley will take over as defensive coordinator this season. While Conley said the scheme might change up a little bit, the basic philosophy on that side of the ball will remain the same.
“We’re not going to sit back,” he said. “We’re going to come and get you.”
Reggie James’ departure creates a hole at middle linebacker, which Conley will fill by moving around a few starters at other positions. James’ younger brother, Robbie, will move from defensive end to middle linebacker, while safety Matthew Jarrard will also join the linebacking corps.
Conley said he hopes the switch will bring more speed to the linebacker position.
David Woodard, who Conley referred to as “maybe the most improved player on our team since last year,” will be a leader along the defensive line. Woodard, along with Terrell Dixon, will bring experience to the trenches.
The War Eagles will be less experienced in the secondary, where cornerback Benny Head is the only returning starter.
“Our secondary will be the one that has the most new guys,” Conley said.
Chestatee lost its do-it-all kicker and punter, so the War Eagles special teams will have a new look in 2018. Edwin Morales will handle kicking duties this season, and Nowlin could potentially see some work as a punter. The Chestatee kicking units will be highlighted by the snapping of Chambers, who grades out as one of the top high school long snappers in the country.
Conley is less sure of who will take over as the team’s return man, suggesting that several players will compete for the job.
The key for Chestatee is going to be winning region games. Last year proved that when went winless in Region 7-4A and missed out on the playoffs, despite starting the year out 4-2. Health will be a major factor for the War Eagles, as depth issues plagued them a season ago when a few players went down with injuries. And while victories over programs like Blessed Trinity and Marist (2017 state championship matchup) are tall orders for Conley’s squad, he said he’s more concerned with how they compete each and every game.
“We’re going to treat every team that we play just like a state championship,” he said.