published Friday, September 13th, 2013

Physical play key for surprising Southeast Whitfield

DALTON, Ga. — The year was 1989. A famous show about nothing premiered on NBC; Janet Jackson, Debbie Gibson and Milli Vanilli topped the pop charts; gas cost $1.12 a gallon.

That also was the last time Southeast Whitfield High School started a football season 2-0. Until now, that is. The Raiders' resurgence, though far from complete, has the south Dalton area starting to show some love for a program that has been one of the state's least successful for more than two decades.

"We're far from a complete team, but this start is huge for the boys' confidence and for this community," said coach Sean Gray, a Southeast graduate who is the key figure in the turnaround. "This is a special team, and they are starting to believe all the hard work is worth it."

Consider the depths the program had fallen to:

• The Raiders lost 30 consecutive games from 1995 to '98;

• The school has employed nine head coaches in the last two decades;

• The two wins this season are equal to or better than 19 seasons since 1989.

Gray, in his second season as head coach, began the turnaround at the middle school level, taking feeder school Valley Point to multiple league championships. Most of the current Raiders entered high school knowing only winning, so when Gray took over a year ago he knew the pieces were there. If there is one difference in this team, it's a focus on being physical in every aspect of the game.

The Raiders are averaging more than 250 yards per game, and the first-team defense did not allow a touchdown in two games and a scrimmage. The Raiders allowed 30-plus points six times last year.

"They've played very well, and they've done it by keeping it simple and always being physical," Gray said. "We've had some surprises step up that have really made a difference."

One of those is middle linebacker Austin Allen, a senior who had not played since his freshman year. A staph infection that year in both knees led to surgery and forced him to give up the sport while concentrating on wrestling. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder has 27 tackles, leading the team, and has ignited the defense with his attitude.

"The thought around here was that we were always going to go 1-9 or 2-8 and nothing good was going on," Allen said. "When things got tough around here, people just quit. But when I came back out, I found out how hard the guys were working, and I knew this team was different, and now we're out to prove it."

Allen, though, isn't yet ready to label the Raiders a playoff contender, and he said others would be wise not to think ahead.

"I would love to say we're going to the playoffs, but if you allow yourself to do that we'll never make it," he said. "We're off to a good start, but we haven't done anything yet. If we can beat a playoff team like Gilmer County [tonight], it will put us on the map."

Contact Lindsey Young at lyoung@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6296.

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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