For the first time since 1996, the Upperman High football team appears poised to make its claim to the District 8-AA title.
Despite just two winning seasons since ’96 when the Bees went 11-3 and lost in the state semifinals to eventual state champion Knox Webb, according to multiple coaches in 8-AA, Upperman is poised to claim its first district title in almost two decades.
“Upperman has to be the favorite,” said Livingston Academy coach Bruce Lamb, whose team won the district championship last year. “They’ve got everybody back.”
Fifteen starters return for Upperman, which finished 4-6 last season and missed the playoffs for a sixth-consecutive year.
“Upperman is probably the team to beat,” Smith County coach Mike Dickerson said. “Everybody else has lost a lot and they return a lot.”
If the Bees are able to finally end a 17-year drought between district/region championships it will largely depend on the play of senior quarterback Connor York, who accounted for 25 touchdowns and more than 2,400 yards (passing and rushing) last season.
Another strength for Upperman will be the play of 6-foot-3 285-pound defensive end Patrick Ely.
“He is a beast,” Dickerson said. “He’s fast and aggressive and he cannot be blocked one-on-one.”
The major contenders to Upperman’s hopeful return to the top of the district will be district mainstays Smith County and Livingston Academy.
Both teams, along with DeKalb County (10-2 last year) and York Institute (7-4 last year), lost a lot from last year’s 11-2 and 8-3 teams.
Livingston Academy lost 13 seniors and is changing offensive schemes to an I-formation from the spread. But the Wildcats do possess a great weapon in senior kicker Elliott Sadler, who has won the district’s special teams MVP each of the past two seasons.
Dickerson takes over perennial-power Smith County for his first season after spending 18 years as an assistant. And although the Owls likely have the district’s best player in running back Jalen Manning (18 touchdowns, more than 1,100 rushing yards on just 138 carries), the team also must replace a bunch of starters on both sides of the ball.
“He’s a special, special player,” Dickerson said. “He squats over 500 pounds, he benches over 400 pounds and he runs around a 4.5 40 (yard dash). You can’t coach that. What we’re going to deal with most is inexperience.
The Owls return just one starter on defense.
Newcomer Macon County will break in its fifth coach in six seasons with former Macon County Middle coach Nathan Wilson. The Tigers were 0-10 last season in 9-AA.
Macon County, along with Cannon County, will battle for last place.