By S. Thomas Coleman
For the AJC
At Stephenson, the question is never about the “what” so much as it is about “when.”
Everyone knows “what” the Jaguars, one of the state’s most successful programs, will do: win at least eight games (something they have done in all but five of the program’s 17 seasons), compete for a region title (Stephenson has claimed seven of them) and produce tons of college players (103 since 2010, 47 of them in FBS and FCS).
But the question always goes back to “when,” as in when will Stephenson play for and win a state championship. It’s a question that’s debated statewide, from barber shops to social media sites. Head coach Ron Gartrell hears the chatter.
“Believe me, no one wants to win a state championship as much as me,” said Gartrell, the only head coach in the program’s history. “We don’t want to just be known as the school where all the players get [college] scholarships. But it takes a whole lot to win a state championship. A lot of things have to go your way. I talked to [Burke County head coach Eric Parker], and he told me that when they won it (in 2011) every one of his starters and key players played every game. He didn’t lose one player to an injury, not one.”
Gartrell points out that in their hunt for a title, his teams have had to face some formidable programs in their heydays, including Camden, Colquitt, Lowndes, Parkview, South Gwinnett and Valdosta.
“We played them all when they were at their peak,” Gartrell said. “We had good teams but they had good teams, too. It was just bad timing, bad luck.”
Gartrell points to his 2005 team that advanced to the semi finals, where it lost to Lowndes 14-0 in the Georgia Dome. The next week Lowndes trounced Brookwood in the finals, 49-7.
“We had three NFL players on that team,” Gartrell said. “But that Lowndes team was extremely good.”
Undaunted by criticism, Gartrell said he and the Stephenson Nation will let their detractors keep talking.
“We have our critics, but that doesn’t worry us,” he said. “We’ve produced a lot of good players, kids who have gone on and won SEC championships, national championships and even Super Bowls.
“There are a lot of teams that would love to be in our shoes, “Gartrell said. “There are a lot of teams that celebrate and cry in December when they win that state championship, and that’s great. I don’t take anything away from them. We want one, too. But I’m proud of the fact that we celebrate that first week in February on National Signing Day, when we have a bunch of kids and parents and grandparents crying because their child has signed a college scholarship worth $50,000 a year, while that team that won [the state title] may have one kid sign, maybe none. We’re proud of what we’ve done and we plan to keep doing it.”
Once again the Jaguars are loaded with college-level talent. On defense, Stephenson will feature a secondary that includes Jared Tucker, who has more than a dozen offers, Cameron Glenn, who has committed to Wake Forest, Ronald Peterkin, who has committed to Georgia State, and Khalil Ladler, who made several freshman All-American lists.
On offense, earth movers Tyler Hall, Javon Barnes and Jordan Harris will pave the way for running back Dallas Rivers. All four players claim multiple scholarship offers. Outside, two more college prospects, Dexter Neal and Isaiah Zuber, are major weapons.
Two sophomores – Dewann Ford and Giovanni Weekley – will battle to take over for graduated quarterback Justin Holman, now at Central Florida. Ford and Weekley are being tutored by quarterback coach Reggie Ball, a former Jaguar who went on to be a four-year starter at Georgia Tech.
“[A state championship] is the only straw that’s missing from our hat,” Gartrell said. “And we’re going to get it. It’s going to happen. At some point that ball is going to bounce our way.”
2012 record: 9-3 (7-2 in Region 6AAAAA; lost to Ware County, 14-0, in the second round of the state playoffs); first regular season game against Pine Forest of Pensacola (FL) was cancelled due to Hurricane Isaac.
Starters returning: 6 on offense, 6 on defense
Key players lost: QB Justin Holman (Central Florida), C Jordan Dunham (Howard), DE Jonathan Wynn (Vanderbilt), LB Khari Alexander (Illinois State), DB Ali Groves (South Carolina), LB Kight Dallas (Georgia State)
Key players returning: DB Jared Tucker (6-0, 180), OL Tyler Hall (6-4, 275), OL/DL Jovan Barnes (6-3, 290) , OL/DL Jordan Harris (6-5, 280), WR Dexter Neal (6-3, 195), WR Isaiah Zuber (6-0, 165), K/P Wisdom Nzidee
Spring practice dates: May 1-16
Spring game: May 16
Aug. 24 at North Gwinnett (Scrimmage)
Aug. 31 vs. TBD
Sept. 6 Arabia Mountain
Sept. 14 Dunwoody
Sept. 20 Lakeside, DeKalb
Sept. 27 Southwest DeKalb
Oct. 11 Tucker
Oct. 18 Miller Grove
Oct. 25 M.L. King
Nov. 1 Mays
Nov. 8 North Atlanta
Outlook: Stephenson is one of those programs that does not rebuild. It reloads. This season will be no different. The defense will be strong and the offense will get a boost from junior Dallas Rivers, who transferred in from Tucker. Look for the Jags to once again challenge for the Region 6AAAAA title and a deep run in the state playoffs.