The 48th City Championship
Dr. Alvin Sanders is just a day away from experiencing his one of his favorite parts of coaching football at Morristown West – seeing Burke-Toney Stadium packed during pregame warmups as the final countdown to kickoff ticks away and the excitement builds.
He’s experienced it as an assistant coach and twice as a head coach, and those two times have come with the Trojans set to take on their arch-rival.
The long offseason will officially end for West on Friday night when it faces Morristown East in the 11th annual Citizen Tribune Kickoff Classic presented by East Tennessee OB/GYN and Dr. Frank Ellis.
“You can just feel that buzz and energy in the stadium,” Sanders said. “You have a lot of people coming out and supporting those young men for both schools. That’s my favorite part of this game, when our guys, especially our younger kids, come out and they get to experience that for the very first time and they see it and they feel it, and just the excitement is in the air.”
But once the pregame warmups conclude and the Trojans return to their locker room, what takes place away from Davis-Saulsbury-Siler Field no longer matters to them.
Making a statement, however, matters a great deal to West after consecutive 3-7 seasons since moving up to Class 6A in 2017.
Rather than run and hide from their mistakes, the Trojans have taken them to heart as they strive to improve in 2019 starting with Friday’s game.
“We’re embracing our misfortunes the past couple of years because it’s a learning experience,” Sanders said. “Our guys, their mentality is ‘I’m ready to take on the world.’ They’re strong enough to take on any situation put before them, and we’re going to respond accordingly. At this point, all the pieces are starting to fall into place. We’re gelling together, so now to be able to compete against somebody else is an exciting time.”
West’s opponent on Friday night is another team looking to make a statement following a 2-8 season of its own as Caleb Slover makes his head coaching debut at Morristown East following a six-year stint at Cocke County.
Under Slover, East is expected to spread the field and rely heavily on its passing attack led by junior signal caller Cole Henson (5-8, 155) Having worked his way into the starting quarterback role as a freshman and sophomore, Henson is now East’s full-time signal caller after completing 116-of-227 passes for 1,790 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017 and 2018.
Seniors Austin Williams (5-9, 140) and Evan Seals (5-10, 165) along with junior Shaffer Harville (6-3, 160) and sophomore Trevor Malone (5-7, 148) are likely to be Henson’s top targets as 2019 kicks off. Senior Logan Randolph (5-6, 137), juniors Dane Lewis (5-6, 132), Ryan Harris (5-10, 155) and Junior Garcia (5-6, 145) and sophomores Braxton Dalton (5-8, 135), Caden Turner (5-6, 142) and Ervin Mickens (6-2, 168) are also likely to catch passes at some point with Dalton possibly playing quarterback at times.
West’s secondary returns two starters in junior JoJo Madeano and senior Terrell Lovell, the latter of which missed much of 2018 with an ACL injury while senior Zach Christensen, junior Ryan Bugg (5-10, 150) and freshman Tison Johnson have all seen significant time at DB during the preseason. All five have broken up at least 1 pass over the course of two scrimmages, and Christensen has intercepted two passes from his cornerback position. Christensen returned the first of those picks 100 yards for a score.
“Coming into a game like this, I’m excited for them. It’s a fun time for them as a defensive back to know their number is going to be called on a lot,” Sanders said. “We understand as a secondary, when we make a mistake, everybody in the stadium is going to know it because it usually results in a big play…..we’re embracing that challenge. Those guys are learning how to communicate and depend on each other and play hard for each other.”
East’s running game will be without senior Jacob Gossett, who went down with an injury during the preseason.
Seniors Jordan Russell (5-10, 187) and C.J. Livesay (6-0, 215), the latter of which also starts at linebacker, along with sophomores Ahmad’jai Fulton (5-7, 138) and Noah Woodard (5-7, 160) and freshman Ethan Ledford (5-7, 145) will all likely tote the pigskin for the Hurricanes at some point.
One of the biggest challenges for West’s front seven, which will base out of a 3-4 look this season, will be pressuring Henson and disrupting any rhythm by East offense.
West’s D-line three returning starters in senior Junior Diakelmad and juniors Justin Dilbeck and Dylan Whilden, with Diakelmad and Dilbeck combining for 3 sacks last year.
Juniors Jovanny Gonzalez, Corbin Long, Nick Hildebrand and Konner Shelton along with sophomores James Ross, Zander Ward and Corson Olodey are currently the frontrunners to start in West’s linebacking corps. Ross has been West’s leading tackler in the preseason.
“Everything offensively for them starts up front with their offensive line, and those kids have been really impressive knowing their assignments,” Sanders noted. “Yes, they may be a little inexperienced, but they play extremely hard. Our job is to go out there and match their intensity defensively and try to make it extremely hard for those guys.”
Juniors Daeshawn Harris (6-1, 260), David Ceniceros (5-10, 223), Edwin Jimenez (5-9, 245) and Raul Rangel (5-11, 250) and sophomore William Sanchez (6-0, 235) are the projected starters on East’s O-line.
With an experienced offensive line featuring senior Jacob Greene (5-11, 240) along with juniors Jaiden Picardi (6-1, 255), Russell Jones (6-2, 200) and Jonathan Glover (6-1, 260) — all of which started in 2018 — the Trojans will rely on their ground game.
Sophomore Hunter Delaney led West in its two scrimmages with 80 yards and a TD on 19 carries while seniors Neyland Gordon and Dominick Hazeltine both gained 69 yards. And Johnson gained 91 yards on 7 carries while scoring twice. Sophomore Michael Fuchs and Madeano have combined for 95 yards, with Madeano scoring a touchdown to cap a 7-minute, 25-second drive at Grace Christian. In short, no one has stood apart from the rest, at least not yet.
“We have guys who can carry the football 20-plus times if they need to but in today’s game, that’s just not very smart football. We want to have guys who are fresh and ready to keep attacking physically and mentally,” Sanders said. “We put a lot of pressure on our offensive line to take on that challenge, no matter who’s back there.”
While inconsistent, West’s passing attack has shown promise with seniors Jackson Cole and Connor Patrick returning and Elijah Richardson moving from quarterback to receiver. Fellow senior Mason Paxton also caught a 44-yard pass in the IMAC Jamboree. Richardson has caught both of West’s passing touchdowns in the preseason, a 27-yarder at South-Doyle and another in the jamboree.
The biggest question mark has been who will be the starting quarterback. For Friday, Sanders indicated the answer is junior Dylan Cribley who has thrown two touchdowns and rushed for another in the preseason. But by no means is the competition closed.
He’s a natural leader. He’s a tough competitive kid, so he’s a guy who’s in tune to what we’re doing offensively,” Sanders said of Cribley. “He has the ability to run and he’s developed quite nicely as a passer, so what we’re going to ask him to do is not go out and have to feel like you have to win the game. You have to go out and do your job and do it at a high level, and everything else will take care of itself.”
Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Burke-Toney Stadium on Friday night.