Consider year one of the Mike Newton administration as a building block. Two wins were not what the coach expected in his first year as the head coach of West Hall, but despite the lack of victories, Newton sees the team and program headed for brighter days.
"We’re turning the corner," Newton said of the Spartans. "I’m pleased with our kids’ performance this summer, and the program is going in the right direction."
What’s hindering the program the most is the lack of students that actually attend the high school. According to Newton, West Hall fell 23 students shy of dropping down to Class AA this year, and the low student population puts an added amount of pressure on the team.
"You’ve got to be fundamentally sound and disciplined in what you do," he said. "We can’t go all out in practice all the time because we don’t have the depth if someone was to get hurt."
Regardless of the numbers, West Hall still plans to have a successful season.
"We expect to win every game," Newton said. "That’s how we approach the season. If I approach it any other way, I’ll be cheating these kids."
The Spartans return only five starters from last year’s team, but two of those five are key players, which could spell success for West Hall in 2008.
Running back Marquise Stephens returns for his senior season, and with his brother Shunquez entering his second year as the signal caller for West Hall, the Spartans are experienced at two critical positions.
"They fit well together," Newton said of the Stephens brothers. "Those two always have done what they could do to make this team better."
That’s proven by the numbers that the pair put up in 2007. The senior Stephens rushed for 1,123 yards and scored 12 touchdowns in 2007, while Shunquez completed 52 percent of his passes for 1,069 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman.
That year under his belt, combined with a summer focused on improving, and Newton expects big things out of his sophomore quarterback.
"Shunquez has had a huge summer," Newton said. "He knows the system and he knows the offense is going to rely on him to do some things."
Those things include finding his brother Marquise, as well as the other skill position players like tight end Kyle Weatherly and wide receiver Rodney Gibson.
After playing defensive end last year, Weatherly, who plays basketball at West Hall, should fit in well at his new position. Especially seeing that the Spartans’ style of offense is comparable to a run-and-shoot style of basketball game.
"Our offense is almost like fast break basketball," Newton said. "We’re going to create one-on-one situations and get our playmakers some space to run."
In order to be successful in 2008, Newton knows that his defense will have to improve.
"We gave up too many big plays on defense last year," he said. "I think we’re going to be a lot stronger and faster on defense, but we do have our work cut out on the defensive side of the ball."
When not on offense, the skill players will play a critical role for the Spartans defense. Marquise Stephens will see extended playing time at middle linebacker in 2008, while Weatherly will spend many defensive series at defensive end. Seniors Gage Brown and Caleb Stewart will also provide experience on defense.
Scott Eichler once again will have all of the kicking responsibilities for the Spartans in 2008. After a strong junior year, in which he averaged 35.6 yards per punt with five making it inside the 20-yard line, Newton is expecting the senior Eichler to be a consistent performer.
"It’s a big plus to have a guy that’s been there before," Newton said.
Marquise Stephens, Terrell Pendleton and Rodney Gibson will all see time returning kicks, with each of them "having the ability to break one," according to Newton.
The Spartans could match and exceed their 2007 win total in the first three games of this season. The first three opponents (East Jackson, Gilmer and Pickens) had a combined 5-21 record in 2007, and their opening night opponent, East Jackson, is playing a varsity schedule for the first time in the school’s two-year history.
All three games will be played at home, and if they win all three, the Spartans will head to White County on Sept. 19 with much needed momentum. Five or six wins isn’t out of reach for West Hall, and if that happens, the Spartans could be in playoff contention in just the second year of Newton’s tenure.