For the Calhoun High School football team, it’s go time.
All the summer workouts and camps are behind them.
The scrimmage nearly two weeks ago in which they demolished Northwest Whitfield County is now just a distant memory.
Now everything that the Yellow Jackets are playing for this year — a Region 7 championship, a playoff berth, a deep playoff run — starts for real Friday night when Calhoun renews its Highway 41 rivalry against Dalton at Hal Lamb Field in both teams’ season openers.
“We’re very excited to get it started,” Calhoun head football coach Clay Stephenson said of upcoming agenda. “We’re very much looking forward to it. We had a good pre-season. The kids have been working very hard.
“We had a good scrimmage. We had a good last week of practice and now we want to have an even better week of preparation this week because we’re going into our first game. But I think everyone is very excited and looking forward to Friday night and playing that first game.”
Even before they have played their first game this week against the Catamounts, the Jackets have already had to defeat one opponent — the recent oppressive heat.
“We got some good work in but it was really hot last week,” Stephenson said. “We had to alter our schedule, according to the Georgia High School Athletic Association heat regulations, so we weren’t able to get some of the work in that we wanted to, but we went three mornings before school started to beat the heat and I thought the kids and the coaches handled everything very well.
“But it’s August and this is Georgia and so I think we’re all kind of in the same boat when it comes to the heat. I think we’re all dealing with it and adjusting to it as best we can and as we need to. But I thought even though it was hot and we couldn’t do everything we wanted to do, we still got a lot of good work in.”
They kicked off last year with a 41-14 win over the Catamounts, but Stephenson believes his guys will see a different type club this years because Dalton is under new leadership.
“They have a new head coach in Kit Carpenter so I know that between it being the first game of the season and it being the first game for their new head coach and it also being a rivalry game, that Dalton is going to come fired up to play.
“I have a ton of respect for Coach Carpenter and the job he does. He’s an excellent football coach. I know he’ll do a great job and I know I wish him nothing but success the other nine weeks of the season. But he’s been on their staff for a long time and he was their defensive coordinator last year.
“So he knows those kids and I know he has a good idea about what he wants to do and what they need to do, so it’s going to be a tough first game. There’s no question about it in my mind. So we’ve got to be ready to go.”
Carpenter graduated from Dalton HS in 1993 and began coaching at the school in 2001. He became the defensive coordinator in 2009 and held that position for 11 years before being named the new head coach back in February. He replaces Matt Land, who resigned at the end of last season.
The Cats were 3-6 last year and 2-5 in Region action but only played eight games, with one of their wins (over Douglas County) coming by a forfeit. The Cats’ wins in 2020 came against Ridgeland and Paulding County.
Stephenson and his assistants saw the team from Whitfield County in their scrimmage last Friday night and the coach was impressed.
“I thought they looked good,” he said. “They’re a very hard-nosed football team. They were very physical. I thought they got a lot of people to the football. So we’re going to have our work cut out for us. We’re going to see a football team that wants to show their new coach what they can do.”
In their season-opening win over Dalton last year, the Jackets showed they were going to be hard to stop offensively, notching three touchdowns in the first quarter and five in the first half in taking command 34-7 at halftime.
And they were hard to stop in 2020.
And after the way they played against Whitfield County in their only scrimmage almost a fortnight ago, scoring five touchdowns in the first quarter alone, it looks like they’re going to be very hard to slow down again in 2021.
That’s because a lot of those same players who made the big plays last year are back this year.
Senior quarterback Christian Lewis is back at the helm and has a pair of steady targets to go to in senior wide receivers Quin Smith and Cole Speer. Senior running back Gage Leonard broke loose for a long touchdown run in the scrimmage and the Jackets have nice depth at that position as sophomore Caden Williams also got away from everybody for a long touchdown run.
Stephenson said his team is looking to play a consistent 48 minutes right off the bat and games can turn quickly in Week One because everything is stil coming together.
“We’re looking to play a full four quarters,” Stephenson said. “We want to play a good, clean four quarters of football. We’re talking this week about special teams, conditioning, and turnovers. We want to be strong on special teams and not make any mistakes.
“A lot of times this early in the season, a mistake in the kicking game or any kind of mistake on special teams can hurt you so we want to play good special teams this week.
“We are also working hard on our conditioning. Last year, we didn’t feel like our conditioning was as good as it needed to be the first couple of weeks in the season and that hurt us. So this year we want to make sure that’s not the case. We’re spending a lot of time on our conditioning and if you’re in good condition, you can play 48 minutes.
“And we’ve got to take care of the football. We’ve got to avoid the turnovers. It’s been a real point of emphasis for us. We’re looking to have a defense that can create turnovers, but we want to have an offense that avoids making them. So those are three things that we are really focusing on this week.”
Kickoff Friday night at Calhoun is 7:30 p.m.