GAINESVILLE — On paper in 2019, Chestatee did what you would want every program to do from year-to-year.
In one of the toughest regions in the state, the War Eagles increased their scoring by more than a field goal per game, gave up 161 points less on defense, and went from a minus-20 turnover ratio to a plus-5 for the season.
However, because of the brutality that was Region 7-4A with the likes of Blessed Trinity (two-time defending state champion) Marist, and Denmark, it only translated into a 2-8 season, even with one of the most dynamic players in the state in now-senior quarterback Christian Charles, who combined for 3,013 all-purpose yards and 24 total touchdowns.
It will only get marginally easier in 2020 for the War Eagles, who are moving to a new revamped Region 8-4A that will feature East Hall, Jefferson, Flowery Branch, Cedar Shoals, North Oconee, and Class 4A state quarterfinalist Madison County. Five of the seven teams in the new configuration made the playoffs in 2019. It is a return to 8-4A after spending the past four seasons in 7-4A.
But Shaun Conley, now in his fifth season at the helm off of Sardis Road, says his group is not daunted by another switch into another high-powered region.
“It’s like jumping out of the fire into the frying pan with this new region,” Conley said. “It’s going to be as tough as the one we just left. But it’s kind of hard to imagine anything being as tough as the old 7-4A.
“With that region (7-4A), we faced state championship talent virtually every week. Our guys have played against some of the best players in the state. They know what it takes to play at a high level. They’re not intimidated by that.
“But for us, it is more about focusing on us regardless of what level or region we’re in. We have some guys coming back with some big-time game experience.”
They do have some quality players returning besides just Charles. A trio of junior receivers in Wyatt Goode, Drew Knickle, and Christian Jarrard, along with sophomore Hayden Gowin, could fill the shoes left by the graduated Seth Presley, who had 75 catches for 1,226 yards and 8 TDs. Those four, however, combined for just 19 catches and 156 yards and just 1 TD in 2019.
Sophomore running back Elijah Pruitt could be ready for a breakout year after amassing 128 yards and 3 TDs in limited action last season. Senior Grant Siegfried and junior Levi Stowers will anchor an offensive line that could get better as the season progresses.
With Charles now in his third-plus season starting under center, the new faces will need to be integrated into the offense. But Conley said that also could play to their advantage.
“This offense works best when we have four or five guys running routes and catching the ball,” he said. “Seth was so good and he and Christian worked so well together. Even though most everyone knew where the ball was going they couldn’t be stopped.
“But I think with none of these guys really being a big name it could give us the ability to be a little more diverse in the offense because the defense won’t know which guy to try and stop. One of our goals this year is to be more evenly spread out with the catches, which I think could make us even more dangerous.”
On defense, the War Eagles should be a little more comfortable in an aggressive style as defensive coordinator Ben Corley is now in his third season. They improved dramatically in 2019 despite what the numbers may say. Yes, they gave up 400 points (40 points a game) but that was coming off a season where they allowed 561 points to the same schedule, which was the most by any team in Class 4A in 2018.
They will be young across the board but that also carries with it some quality game experience from 2019 as well. They return most of their secondary in juniors Ethan Corley (S) and defensive backs Goode and Knickle. They also could be deep along the line with juniors Jeronimo Marin, Anakin Rowland, and Harrison Mitchell upfront. Pruitt should lead the linebackers.
“With the teams we played last year, I really thought our defense played very well at times,” Conley said. “We were still breaking in a new system with coach Corley, who is doing a tremendous job. We have a lot of those guys back and I think we’ll see even more improvement this year. I’m excited to see how much better they can get.”
Last year the special teams were set with sophomore Deangelo Pruitt assuming the placekicking and punting duties. But Pruitt is not returning leaving a big hole for Conley and the staff to try and fill.
“That’s going to be a spot that we’re searching for the right guy maybe all the way up to the first week of the season,” Conley said. “Special teams is an important unit so we’re going to work hard to find the one or two guys that can kick and punt.”
The schedule will be challenging from start to finish. The War Eagles have seven playoff teams on the schedule. And, this could be one of the most athletic regions in northeast Georgia, if not the entire state. Charles is among a group like Jefferson junior Malaki Starks, which has garnered multiple Power 5 offers, and East Hall sophomore quarterback Clete Cooper, who finished 12th in the state in passing in 2019 (2,499 yards). Flowery Branch offers senior running back Jaizen Ellingham (818 yards, 14 TDs in just 7 games) while Cedar Shoals has junior running back Jerdavian Colbert (1,342 yards, 13TDs). Much like Charles, any of those guys can alter any game at any time against any opponent.
They open at home against what is expected to be a much-improved Cherokee Bluff team. Road games against Union County (2nd round Class 2A playoffs) and West Hall follow and they close out their non-region schedule against arch-rival North Hall (2nd round Class 3A) at home.
They open their region schedule with road games at North Oconee (2nd round Class 4A) and East Hall. They have the toughest finish in 8-4A with Madison County (quarterfinals Class 4A playoffs), Jefferson (quarterfinals Class 3A playoffs), Flowery Branch (Class 4A playoffs), and Cedar Shoals (2nd round Class 5A playoffs) but do get three of the final four games at War Eagle Stadium.
“Our schedule is probably the toughest it has ever been when you look at all the playoff teams we have on it,” Conley said. “But right now I’m only worried about Game 1 against Cherokee Bluff. Too many good teams to think about beyond that.
“There are some great players in this region, Christian among them, so every week is going to be a huge challenge for us. We want to be in the playoff hunt. With Christian, we feel like we can be in every game. On any given night you have a chance and we’re working on having that mentality every week, every game.”