GRACE ACADEMY GOLDEN EAGLES
Head coach: Bob Ateca (55-71 here and overall)
Returning starters: 7 offensive; 6 defensive
Last year's record: 6-4, lost in first round of TSIAA playoffs
Key players: Wesley Thompson (5-8, 165) Sr. QB/LB, Brock Passons (5-8, 165) Sr. WR/DB, Jacob Mock (6-0, 175) Sr. RB/LB, Sam Richards (6-0, 245) Jr. OL/DL, Boone Perry (5-8, 160) So. WR/DB, Austin Nelson (6-0, 265) Jr. OL, Andrew Huggins (6-1, 170) So. TE, Walter Bianco (5-7, 170) So. RB/LB.
Season outlook: One year after winning an independent league's eight-man state championship, Grace again finished with a winning record last fall despite playing mostly underclassmen.
Back-to-back successful seasons, plus the completion of construction of the school's new football stadium — which includes a synthetic turf field — has helped restock the roster with talent to the level that Coach Ateca admits the Golden Eagles will soon rejoin the TSSAA to compete in Division II-A.
After a tornado destroyed the Grace campus in April 2020, the school's administration chose to switch to the eight-man game two years ago to allow the program time to rebuild its roster numbers.
"We're working our way back," Ateca said. "Since our school building isn't complete yet, we weren't sure what our numbers would be like, so we felt like it was safer to stay where we are, but we're happy that we have 28 on the roster.
"We'll play a hybrid schedule this season with two 11-man opponents and plan to play a few more next year as we ease our way back. The plan right now is when the TSSAA sets its new schedules after next season, we will get back into playing 11-man."
The Golden Eagles' two 11-man opponents will be Lookout Valley and King's Academy, and Ateca expects this year's team to return to being one of the strongest in the independent league.
"Since we're still playing in the eight-man league, we can two-platoon more, so our depth is as strong as it's ever been and we've got good overall experience, so we're excited about what we could accomplish," Ateca said.
Another reason for optimism about the program's future is the fact that seven of the 16 starters this year are sophomores, including Bianco and Perry, who are on the short list of players who will be counted on as two-way starters.
"It's a talented group of sophomores who already have good experience from last season," Ateca said. "We're a much better team right now than we were last season, and we believe we're headed in a really positive direction."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].