Middle school football is focused on getting kids ready for the high school varsity level. Many of the athletes you’ll soon see on Friday nights at Calhoun, Gordon Central and Sonoraville are preparing for that stage this fall. The Calhoun Times gives you a look into the upcoming middle school season and how head coaches are preparing the next Gordon County varsity football players.

Eric Rigney, Calhoun

Can you take me through your last season, how it ended and some highlights?

“Last year we finished up 7-2. Our two losses both came to Cartersville. Lost to them in the regular season, then we lost to them again in the championship game. We were tied going into the fourth quarter, but they came out ahead. Last year was a good year. A lot of good guys.”

From the end of last season to now, where do you think your team has stepped up most?

“This is the first team we’ve had in a while to have a full year of weight training under them. They’re definitely stronger. I think we’re faster this year. We have several returning starters that started last year. That will be a huge asset.”

Any in particular come to mind?

“We’ve got Caden Williams, plays linebacker and running back. We have Christian Bell, returning starter who will be playing maybe some linebacker and some offensive line. And our quarterback from last year is back, Bryant Arnold.”

Where do you think your team, overall, has improved most?

“They’ve spent a lot of time together since May, since we did spring and then went throughout summer workouts, this team has come really close. It’s a tight-knit bunch of kids. A lot of these kids I kept as sixth graders a long time ago, so this is their third year of being here together. Just the camaraderie, the base knowledge coming in, we’re already ahead right now to where we normally are right now.”

As head coach, what do you feel is your No. 1 responsibility with the team?

“My No. 1 responsibility is to get them ready to step into high school and be ready and have base knowledge of what’s going on. Knowledge of the plays, knowledge of safety and knowledge of how to tackle correctly, … give them all the fundamentals they need to be successful in high school.”

What stands out to you the most about this group that you have?

“We have several good athletes. We have some kids that are not as athletic as others that will get quality playing time just because of their work effort. They work, they try, they don’t give up and that’s what it takes.”

Blake Hilley, Ashworth Middle SchoolHow did last season finish up for the Warriors?

“This is my first season coming in. Last season didn’t go so well for them. Right now, we’re just trying to build the kids through, fighting that mentality of ‘Hey, we’re coming off this losing season and we’ve struggled.’ And we’re trying to change the direction and culture around. The kids responded really well this summer and through the spring practice as well with the change of identity and change of culture. We’ve come a long way and hopefully that’ll pay off in the end on the field.”

What are you looking for this season from the kids?

“For me, I’m just looking for growth. I’m always looking for how can we get kids better, how can we develop different stages of kids. I’ve got sixth graders, seventh grader and eighth graders, and all bring different things to the table and my biggest job here is to develop these kids and teach them real fundamentals to when they get to the high school (level), they can jump right in and get started.”

How has the team responded well to the changes?

“I really pushed them to step up and be leaders, not only by example but vocal leaders. I challenged the kids. For example, last week in our last workouts, the guys had really encouraged each other, whether we’re running or lifting, I happened to be with another coach of mine … and I happened to hear a bunch of screaming, hooping and hollering in the weight room and … all 30-35 of them have surrounded one kid and he’s over there bench pressing and he’s struggling and they all encouraged him. It gave me goosebumps because that’s what I’ve been wanting all summer. Just seeing from where they came from in the spring and kind of being timid to now … its been very pleasing.”

Do you have any returners that you feel have really stepped up?

“Usually out of your middle school, you expect a lot out of your eighth grade class. They’re the most mature body-wise and, obviously, they’ve grown to that point from being a sixth grader so we expect a lot of big things out of our eighth grade class. Braxton Carnes and Cole Price come to mind. Those two have shown up everyday in the summer. They’ve been through the fire. They’ve played here since they were sixth graders. Our quarterback, a seventh grader, his name is Skyler Williams. He can throw the football well for a middle schooler. He can run (and) he’s very smart. He’s really stepped up in his vocal leadership.”

What, in your mind, will define success this season?

“To me, what defines success this football season is just see how we grow as a team. I want to see how we progress through our schedule, what areas are we getting better at. If we can continually to get better at the little things and individual positions, coach them correctly, and get them better as units …, then I believe we will grow and I think the wins and losses at the end of the day take care of themselves.”

William Bryant, Red Bud Middle SchoolCan you take me back through last season, how it ended up?

“Last season, we finished with a winning record. I felt like we got better as the season went along. We continued to improve. I feel like the last couple of games of the season we played were the best games we played all year, so I was pleased with that. We didn’t finish the season the way we wanted to. Anytime you finish with a loss, it’s not the way you want to finish a season. We played a good ballgame, I was proud of the kids, and it … was a good example for the kids moving forward.”

What are you looking forward to most about 2019?

“I had guys come in before school and work in small groups in the winter and spring and then transition into summer workouts. Kids worked hard. We’re really looking forward to this season, trying to build off of what we did last year.”

As a middle school football coach, what’s the most important thing you are trying to teach the kids?

“No. 1, we try to teach them the right way to play. We try to teach them how to play hard, how to play safe. We try to teach them the fundamentals. We try to stress the importance of doing the little things, doing it correctly, being accountable and that importance of commitment and I feel like we’ve done that. We try to teach them to be better football players, better citizens, better human beings. Everything we do, No. 1, we’re trying to win ball games, but No. 2, we’re trying to prepare them so that they go into the high school as ninth graders as prepared as we can make them.”

When you look at your roster, who are some returners that stand out to you?

“We have Ty Brown coming back. Very physical, tough kid. Plays linebacker for us. Leads by example. Wyatt Key plays running back for us. He’s a fast, physical kid. Really strong. We’ve looked to him to be one of our leaders this year. Jaxon Pate is coming back. Not so much a vocal leader, but leads by example. He knows the right way to do things. He’s fighting for a quarterback position. I could sit here and list kids all day long. We’re going to have a lot of kids that can play.”

For this middle school football season, what is going to define success?

“If our kids play hard and they execute what we’re trying to get them to execute, … then I feel like I’m getting them prepared to go on and have success in high school. Obviously, we feel like winning’s important, … but we want to emphasize those things that make winning possible, that we’re disciplined, we work hard, we do things the right way, and if we do that, the wins and losses will take care of themselves.”