No matter the sport, there are carpe diem-type slogans that coaches employ to promote teammate bonding.
For the Stockbridge football team, the current t-shirt material is “hold the rope,” a reference to a piece of motivational writing, author unknown. Coach Kevin Whitley, entering his fifth season leading the Tiger program, said it boils down to mutual trust between teammates.
“It’s if you’re hanging off a cliff, who do you want holding the rope?” Whitley said. “Who will let their hands bleed and burn and not let go?”
With that as a team theme, the Tigers set about replacing quarterback Trent Earl when they started spring practice Monday, as well as most of their receiving corps and two spots on the offensive line. Those are the major question marks, but Whitley seems to like the direction of the program – the Tigers had the best season in school history in 2012 and appeared in the state playoffs for the third straight year.
“If you don’t win the state championship, there’s always room,” he said. “I’m sure the guys that won say that they can get better. You can always make some strides. You’re never really satisfied. But now there’s a different expectation level. We’ve been to the playoffs three straight years.”
Even with the departure of Earl, who passed for nearly 1,200 yards and ran for more than 600 in 2012, the Tigers have weapons. Speedy running backs Malik Bryan (who rushed for more than 1,100 yards in 2012) and Maetron Thomas (450 yards) will likely carry the bulk of the offensive load. Stockbridge has four possible replacements for Earl, three of them sophomores, and experienced running backs figure to take the pressure off the new QB.
The same goes for the defense, where nine starters return, including CB Kendarius Webster, who has been clocked at 4.4 in the 40-yard dash and has more than 20 scholarship offers, and S Javon Brandon.
“We’re excited about that side of the ball,” Whitley said. “Initially we’re not going to ask our QB to do anything great. Just snap the ball and get it to the playmakers. We’ve played really good defense all four years I’ve been here, even when we were 2-8.”
Along with the expecations within the program, Whitley said the community has taken notice.
“It’s been great. Our school has definitely been energized,” Whitley said. “ We were getting emails from people that graduated from Stockbridge in 1968 and 1978. So we told the kids that it has become bigger than us. You’ve got people that are now taking pride in our program because they went to school here. That’s what you want, even if the expectations are unrealistic. I don’t want to be anywhere we’re not expected to win.”
2012 record: 11-2, 4-0 Region 4-AAAA Division A, lost to Marist in the state quarterfinals
Starters returning: 5 offense; 9 defense
Key players lost: QB Trent Earl, DB Corey Hall, OG Joe Haynie, WR Nigel Hughes, RB Corey Slaughter
Key players returning: RB Maetron Thomas, DB Kendarius Webster, RB Malik Bryan, OL Michael Pritchett, LB Cameron Gordon, DB Javon Brandon
Spring practice dates: May 13-24
Schedule: Aug. 31 at Tri Cities; Sept. 6 Upson-Lee; Sept. 13 at Columbia; Sept. 21 at North Clayton; Sept. 27 Griffin; Oct. 4 Eagle’s Landing; Oct. 18 at Dutchtown; Oct. 25 Woodland; Nov. 1 at Locust Grove; Nov. 8 region play-in game.
Outlook: The Tigers’ chances to continue the success of 2012 may hinge on how well an untested quarterback can manage the offense, but experienced running backs Malik Bryan and Maetron Thomas and nine returning starters on defense are cause from optimism in Stockbridge.