Columbia Academy fans were singing the praises of head coach Larry Dolan after he guided the Cougars to a 7-4 season last year, the school’s best finish since 2004.
Building on that success will be the challenge as the former Forrest County AHS coach embarks on his second season at CA.
“We are miles ahead of where we were last year at this time,” said Dolan, who led FCAHS to the Class 4A state championship in 2013.
“But that doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful season. Our numbers are up from last year, but we still lack depth.”
Still, the Cougars return seven starters on offense, which is reason for optimism.
Leading the way is athletic junior quarterback Wiley Cleland, who completed 90 of 160 passes (56.2 percent) for 1,654 yards and 17 touchdowns, against just five interceptions.
His main weapon on offense will be senior running back Heath Greenlee, who rushed for 1,296 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Also returning in the backfield is junior Colton Sandifer.
Back to lead the receiving corps is junior Luke McKenzie, who caught 29 passes for 372 yards last season.
The offensive line is relatively inexperienced, but does have some size in sophomore Alex Sibley (6-3, 295) and junior Dylan Martin (6-0, 230).
On defense, Dolan may have enough talent to avoid having a lot of two-way players.
CA will lean heavily on senior linebacker Caleb Pounds, who was the team’s leading tackler last season with 114 stops.
Dolan is also expecting a lot of production from a big defensive line, led by sophomores Jay Stringer (6-3, 245) and Jake Brewer (6-1, 190).
Last year, the Cougars averaged just over 28 points a game, and Dolan expects that to be the team’s strength again this year.
“Seven returning starters on offense will give us a chance to be productive offensively,” Dolan said. “With hard work and a few breaks, this team can continue our program’s growth into a playoff contender.”
•Coach: Larry Dolan
•Record: 7-4 (2nd season)
•Last season: 7-4 overall, 3-4 district (did not make playoffs)
•State championships: 1978
•Assistant coaches: T.C. Chambliss, Heath Smith, Tommy Sumrall, Kevin Grice, Keith Stanley, D.B. Mitchell
•Shoes to fill: RB John Miles McNeese, WR Richard McLeod
•Players to watch: QB Wiley Cleland, RB Heath Greenlee, WR Luke McKenzie, LB Caleb Pounds, DL Jay Stringer
•The skinny: The Cougars took big strides in Dolan’s first season as head coach, and confidence is high. With MAIS realignment, CA expects to contend for a playoff spot in its district.