published Friday, August 8th, 2014

South Pittsburg Pirates favored again in 6-A, challenged by Marion

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    South Pittsburg's Kitt Grider (10) hands the ball off to Corbin Fitzgerald (4).
    Photo by C. B. Schmelter.
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DISTRICT 6-A AT A GLANCE

* Team on the rise: Whitwell got to 5-5 a year ago and now is armed with numerous veterans and the enthusiasm, schemes and "can do" attitude of new coach R.C. Helton, a former East Ridge player.

* Team on the decline: The toughest thing to do is come out of district competition with a winning record. Everybody points at South Pittsburg as the team to beat, but Marion County, with new coach Ricky Ross, is receiving favorable comments. So it leaves this dubious spot to Whitwell or Lookout Valley, which is seeking to rebound from a 1-9 showing last year, with second-year program Sale Creek having gone winless in 2013.

* Toughest schedule: South Pittsburg opens with perennial Kentucky power Bell County and then faces defending District 6-AA champion Hixson. Later the Pirates host Boyd-Buchanan, last year's 5-A winner, and visit defending 5-AA champion Polk County before ending the regular season by hosting 6-A title contender Marion County.

* Dream schedule: Lookout Valley opens with home games against Silverdale Baptist and Class 3A Chattanooga Christian. Beginning on Sept. 19, though, the Yellow Jackets play a district game every other week, and three of those are home games: against Whitwell, South Pittsburg and Sale Creek.

* Players to watch: Marion County's Blake Zeman was a Mr. Football finalist last year and returns to play both sides, although it's possible that when the linebacker/running back gets a rest it will be on offense. South Pittsburg's Kitt Grider is the returning quarterback from a 2013 state-final team. Whitwell's Clay McHone set a school rushing record last year and will be aided by the return from injury of Cody Ingrassia. Lookout Valley sophomore quarterback Evan Walker enters his third season to start.

* Predicted order of finish: For more than a decade South Pittsburg pretty much has dominated the field, with the exception of first-place finishes by Signal Mountain and Tennessee Temple. "It's South Pittsburg. Enough said," offered one coach. Marion County again is expected to contend, Whitwell is looking to improve on last year's 5-5 finish, Lookout Valley expects to be vastly improved and Sale Creek enters its second varsity season hoping for its first win.

History dictates that South Pittsburg again will win the District 6-A football championship.

As others yawn at the thought, though, Pirates coach Tim Moore has a contrary view, one that specifically involves county rival Marion County.

"Yeah, they've got the team right now," the second-year South Pittsburg coach said. "[Blake] Zeman's back, and the majority of the rest are back. In our district they're the ones to beat."

Of the teams currently in the district, it's been eons since one of them -- Marion, Lookout Valley or Whitwell -- won a regular-season championship, and Sale Creek is a second-year program struggling to compete with the likes of the top two, for sure.

As the coach of one district opponent said, though, "It's South Pittsburg. Need I say more?"

The Pirates were back in the Class 1A state final a year ago but lost four of their starting five offensive linemen along with Class A Mr. Football running back Jajuan Lankford, the school's all-time leading rusher.

And while he deflected championship talk across the interstate, Moore was by no means throwing in the towel or reaching for one of the crying variety.

Tackle Ethan Moss is the lone returning line starter offensively, but the Pirates coach did say that he had some guys, including Josh Long and Sam Nelson, who played a lot last year although they weren't starters.

"It's not like the cupboard's bare," he agreed. "We just have to get them to jell."

As for offense, another coach pointed to South Pittsburg because quarterback Kitt Grider, now a four-year starter, is back at quarterback.

As for replacing Lankford, the coach seems awfully high on Corbin Fitzgerald and Chase Blevins.

"Jajuan had some great tools, but both can make up for his absence," Moore said. "Corbin's probably the best receiver on the team."

Moore is banking on Grider, Fitzgerald, McKenna Blevins and a relative newcomer, sophomore Joseph Lilly. Blevins, better known as a defensive end/linebacker type, will get more than his share of offensive plays at tight end. Lilly, the fastest Pirate, should be able to keep defenses from clogging the line of scrimmage and cutting off the patented sweeps.

It won't necessarily be a run-first offense, either, especially with Grider working from the shotgun rather than under center.

"I guess folks around here would compare the offense to the days when Terrell Robinson was here and in the shotgun," Moore said. "We'll still do our wing-T plays, but we'll probably look a little like Auburn's offense."

Contact Ward Gossett at wgossett@timesfreepress.com or 423-886-4765. Follow him at Twitter.com/wardgossett.

about Ward Gossett...

Ward Gossett is an assistant sports editor and writer for the Times Free Press. Ward has a long history in Chattanooga journalism. He actually wrote a bylined story for the Chattanooga News-Free Press as a third-grader. He Began working part-time there in 1968 and was hired full time in 1970. Ward now covers high school athletics, primarily football, wrestling and baseball and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga wrestling. Over a 40-year career, he has covered ...

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