It was a season of peaks and valleys in 2020 for the Sonoraville Phoenix as they started out the schedule hot, struggled and didn’t catch many breaks in the middle and finished out with three nice wins to head into the offseason with some momentum.

They are banking on the lessons learned from that unpredictable stretch and maybe a little more luck (and good health) this season to turn 2021 into a more consistent and successful year.

The Phoenix finished 5-5 last season in a year marked by a tough midseason slump that was in large part determined by Covid quarantines and players missing crucial region games. After starting with two solid non-region wins over Model and Chattooga, Sonoraville opened the Region 6-AAA schedule 0-5 to all but take them out of the postseason race. But they didn’t mail it in like some teams would have after that tough stretch. Instead, they finished strong with wins over LaFayette, Ringgold and Coahulla Creek.

Sonoraville head coach Denver Pate said he was proud of the way his team fought in the final weeks of the 2020 season to make the best out of a tough situation and is hoping that carries over into this season.

“That middle part of the season stunk, there’s really no other way to describe it,” said Pate, who is heading into his fifth season leading the Phoenix. “We were hampered by quarantines and missing kids, but we still have to find a way to win a couple of those games. The Murray County game and LFO games were really tough to handle. But to come back and win those last three against quality teams shows the fight our kids have. They continued to compete, and I was very proud of them for that. They were locked in every day even though things didn’t go their way. That helped generate some energy and excitement going into the offseason.”

One good thing that came out of missing players due to injuries or quarantine last season was the experience gained by those asked to step in to fill the role for a game or two. That playing time translates into a deeper and more experienced roster coming back for 2021, and Pate said he expects that to be a positive as his team looks to become a contender for a playoff spot in Region 6-AAA this season.

“One play here or there wins or loses games, and our kids learned that the hard way last year,” said Pate. “They knew they had to get better this offseason to turn some of those losses into wins. Our offseason commitment level was as high as we’ve ever had, and we’ve got a ton of kids out for practice now. The energy and hunger is there. They play with excitement even in practice. We don’t have a huge senior class, but it’s a solid group with lots of experience. We’ve got several kids including many of our juniors that played a lot as freshmen. We’ve got several kids that have started a few years for us and have a lot of games under their belt. They want to go out successful as seniors.”

The Phoenix offense will have a new signal-caller this season as they have the task of replacing two-year starter Brady Lackey at quarterback. Lackey, who signed with Cumberlands, following his senior season had a huge impact leading Sonoraville’s offense the past two seasons, contributing heavily in the pass and run game.

Sophomore Jaxon Pate is expected to get the first crack at the starting quarterback spot, and he has several things going in his favor that should help with the transition. One of those is an offensive line that returns four of five starters, including center Jaxx Knight who leads the group. At the skill positions, the Phoenix are deep as well with running back Zach Lyles and receiver Brant Bryant returning after huge sophomore seasons. Nick Beddington is also an experienced target at receiver that should see his share of targets.

“It’s always tough when you lose a two-year starter at quarterback,” said Denver Pate. “And most people will tell you I’m harder on my son than anybody. He’s been impressive at times as he’s trying to get more consistent and someone we can count on. Getting the ball out of his hand on time is the priority. With a veteran offensive line coming back, we feel better about having him back there as a dual-threat guy. It definitely helps with what we can surround him with so it’s very beneficial to bring back those experienced guys up front. And then we’ve got playmakers like Brant and Nick on the outside. We’ve moved Ridge (Redd) in to tight end, and there are some other guys that have emerged. We’ve got Matthew Parrott back from an injury this year, and he’s a senior that should make a bigger impact this year. Then you have a guy like Zach that you can build your offense around. We’re doing some different things with him because he’s so much of a threat. I look for him to have a really good year.”

A young and sometimes depleted defense in 2020 has turned into an experienced and deep unit going into 2021. Dawson Young is the leader in the trenches as he looks to set the tone from his defensive line position. Spencer McDaniel is also a senior that will see his role increased this year on the defensive line. Pate also said Tristan Mullins and Zach McAfee will be counted on at the linebacker spot with Jebb Knight filling in one of the important outside linebacker roles. Bryant and Beddington will be asked to play both ways as cornerbacks and Tanner Hicks, Jadon Thomason and Chase Bonds are also battling for playing time along with Lyles at defensive back.

“Our defense brings back a lot of guys that got on the field last year,” said Pate. “Inside the box is where we bring back the most depth with Tristan and Zach continuing to get stronger at linebacker. We’ve got four or five guys that will rotate in on the defensive line. Dawson Young is really important up there, and Spencer McDaniel is looking to have more of a breakout year after getting a lot of time last season. On the perimeter we’re replacing Davin O’Neal who made a lot of plays for us, but Jebb Knight and Wyatt Springfield should be able to fill some of that production. Brant and Nick are back at corner, and Tanner Hicks is someone that can fly that we are going to utilize more as a coaching staff at receiver and defensive back. Jaden and Chase are battling it out at safety, and Zach has been working back there some as well. There is a lot of competition on defense, and that’s a good thing.”

The Phoenix will scrimmage at cross-county rival Gordon Central on Aug. 13 before opening the regular season on Aug. 20 at Model. They play their first home game on Sept. 17 as they open the 6-AAA schedule against defending region champion Rockmart.

Pate said there are several key factors that could determine his team’s success or failure in 2021

“Staying healthy for the most part is huge,” said Pate. “Offensively, our offensive line is going to play a big part in our success. Consistency is the key across the board on offense, whether that’s making correct reads at quarterback or running back, and making the correct cuts. We just have to get the ball to our playmakers and let them execute. Defensively, getting guys to play downhill more this year is important. We want them to play more on their toes than on the balls of their feet.

“I’m excited about this group. We have lots of experience, and our seniors have done a good job of leading. It all comes down to execution for us and eliminating mistakes.”

Five Impact Players:

♦ Brant Bryant, WR/CB, Jr.

♦ Zach Lyles, RB/DB, Jr.

♦ Jaxx Knight, OL, Jr.

♦ Nick Beddington, WR/DB, Sr.

♦ Dawson Young, DL, Jr.

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