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Brian White runs past a tackling dummy during Athens' first practice of the preseason Monday.
Daily photo by Brennen Smith
Brian White runs past a tackling dummy during Athens' first practice of the preseason Monday.

HIGH SCHOOL COUNTDOWN
Defending a championship
After winning 2006 state title,
Athens returns for another shot

First in a series.

By Brooke Milam
bmilam@decaturdaily.com · 340-2460

ATHENS — For eight months, the Athens High Golden Eagles have celebrated.

But now the defending Class 5A state champions must return to work to regain respect earned during last season’s history-making run.

“If we get too caught up in accomplishments of teams of the past, we’ll never reach the potential we need to with this group,” coach Allen Creasy said. “Every year you start a season with a brand new team.

“This team will have a different personality than last year’s team. It brings a freshness to this team that adds to the excitement of the season starting.”

Although the Golden Eagles graduated eight starters on offense and eight on defense, they still landed at No. 8 in the Alabama Sports Writers Association preseason rankings. Even so, the players said they know there is work to be done in Athens.

“We want to prove we’re better than No. 8,” senior offensive lineman/linebacker Chris Cosby said.

In fact, the Golden Eagles are turning the pressures of following up a championship season into a positive.

“There is pressure, but it just makes us work harder,” senior linebacker Ethan Hobbs said.

Graduation left a lot of holes for Creasy and the Golden Eagles to fill — they lost 18 seniors, including several multiple-year starters, four all-state players and Mr. Football finalists Rob Ezell and Alfred McCullough.

State champion offensive coordinator Cody Gross also has departed. He is now the head coach at 3A Colbert County.

But don’t call it a “rebuilding year.” Creasy said he prefers the term “reloading.”

The good news for Athens’ offense is that there is experience returning on its line. One of the few positions not raided by graduation, the Golden Eagles’ line will return senior three-year starters Keith Hogan at center, Blake Davis at right guard and Justin Rogers at left guard. They’ll protect a new starting quarterback in Todd Pepper.

Pepper, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound senior, replaces Ezell, who commanded the high-powered Athens offense for four seasons. Creasy described Pepper as “a solid passer and runner.” Pepper backed up Ezell for two seasons and started at linebacker last season.

“Todd has prepared himself well for the position,” Creasy said. “We’re really excited about what we’re going to be able to do offensively. We don’t look for the offense to be as flashy as it has been, but Todd is a very consistent player and definitely capable of running the offense.

“It’s not a situation of us having to change a whole lot that we do.”

Senior Justin Brown is the most experienced receiver returning for Athens, which is expected to have its usually strong passing game. Senior Robert Brown, also a solid contributor a year ago, returns at running back.

With the offense leading the way, players said they also feel confident in the Golden Eagles’ linebackers setting the tone on defense.

Junior William Ming, a 6-4, 235-pound strongside linebacker, started every game last year, and junior Clint Lamb also brings experience to the linebacker corps.

Tested early, the new wave of Golden Eagles will travel to county rival East Limestone in the season opener Sept. 1. After that, the schedule doesn’t ease up with 5A, Region 8 games, including Russellville, J.O. Johnson, who Athens beat in last year’s semifinals, and rivals Decatur and Hartselle. Providing the final challenge of the regular season is Sparkman, a traditional 6A power.

Creasy said he knows his 18 seniors “want to leave their own legacy and mark on the Athens football tradition.” And as the Golden Eagles reel off a long list of goals for the year, it’s no secret that the effects of last season’s crowning moment at the state finals in Birmingham are still having a positive impact.

“We want to beat East Limestone and we want to be in the top spot in the region,” Cosby said. “Oh yeah, and we want to beat Russellville. We go into every practice saying, ‘Repeat.’ That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Athens at a glance

n Last year:12-3, Class 5A state champions.

n Head coach:AllenCreasy (57-30 in seven years at Athens).

n Noteworthy:After a 44-15 rout of East Limestone in last season’s opener, this year’s first game should prove to be an interesting matchup when the 5A No. 8 Golden Eagles travel to play the 4A No. 7 Indians. ... Athens looks to continue its offensive dominance under new starting quarterback Todd Pepper after averaging 31.5 points a game during last year’s regular season under Rob Ezell’s direction. ... Athens is ranked below five teams that it beat last season (Eufaula, J.O. Johnson, Fort Payne, Jess Lanier, Briarwood Christian) in this year’s ASWA pre-season poll.

- Brooke Milam

Athens High schedule, results

2007 schedule

9-1 at East Limestone

9-7 at Muscle Shoals (R)

9-14 West Point (R)

9-21 at Decatur (R)

9-28 at Jess Lanier

10-5 Russellville (R)

10-12 at Hartselle (R)

10-19 Brewer (R)

10-26 J.O. Johnson (R)

11-2 at Sparkman

(R)-Class 5A, Region 8

2006 results

vs. East Limestone W, 44-15

vs. Muscle Shoals W, 42-14

at West Point W, 42-0

vs. Decatur W, 37-17

vs. Jess Lanier W, 17-14

at Russellville L, 32-19

vs. Hartselle L, 35-31

at Brewer W, 48-12

at J.O. Johnson W, 21-14

vs. Sparkman L, 31-14

Playoffs

at Briarwood Chr. W, 21-11

vs. Fort Payne W, 41-7

at Hartselle W, 23-13

vs. J.O. Johnson W, 21-18

vs. Eufaula W, 10-7

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