SALE CREEK PANTHERS
Head coach: Jason Fitzgerald (first year here; 171-79 overall)
Returning starters: 7 offensive; 7 defensive
Last year's record: 4-7, lost in TSSAA Class 1A first round
Key players: Jackson Moore (5-11, 147) Sr. QB, Khari Escobar (5-11, 145) Jr. QB, Grayson Cosper (5-11, 215) Sr. RB/LB, Ridge Morgan (5-10, 205) Sr. RB/LB, Alex Wolgast (6-0, 185) Sr. RB/LB, Mike Gilley (5-11, 180) Jr. RB/LB, Daniel Hall (5-9, 170) Sr. RB/LB, Justin Griffin (6-2, 185) Sr. WR/DB, Luke Cecil (6-1, 175) Jr. WR/DB, Lucas Mathis (5-1, 165) Sr. WR/DB, Matthew Taylor (6-1, 315) Sr. OL/DL, Elijah Smith (6-0, 225) Sr. OL/LB, Christian Moreno (5-9, 205) Sr. OL/DL, Gabe Womack (5-11, 220) Sr. OL/DL, Brayden Gaines (6-0, 250) Sr. OL/DL, Kully Cobb (6-1, 225) Sr. DL.
Season outlook: When Fitzgerald was hired in February, it signaled an immediate shift in what's expected from the program in the near future.
"I told the kids just making the playoffs is no longer good enough here," said Fitzgerald, who led Meigs County to six straight 10-win seasons — including back-to-back appearances in the Class 2A BlueCross Bowl state title game and a 30-game streak of regular-season wins — before resigning to take over the Panthers.
In Sale Creek football's 10-year history, despite reaching the postseason the past five years, the Panthers have never had more than five wins in a season, never hosted a playoff game and never advanced past the first round. All of that could change with Fitzgerald instilling a sense of confidence and having more experienced depth than the team has had in past years.
"We have to change the mentality," Fitzgerald said. "The kids have never believed in themselves, but winning produces winning. Once you see it, you believe it, so our guys need to see early season success by getting off to a good start.
"I've been impressed by how quickly the kids have picked up on a new offense and defense. We're going to be able to be pretty physical and come right at folks, but we've got more athletes than I think people realize, too."
Another aspect that should help build confidence: only one of Sale Creek's nonregion opponents had a winning record last year (Bledsoe County was 7-5), while the other four were a combined 6-29. Getting both Lookout Valley and Whitwell at home should be key in challenging for a home game in the playoffs.
"We've got good depth across the board, so we can put a backup in at any time and not feel there's a drop-off," Fitzgerald said. "What we have in our locker room can compete for a championship."
Contact Stephen Hargis at [email protected].