By Derrick Mahone
The season didn't end like North Clayton had hoped, but second-year coach Rodney Hackney can point to several positives from the just completed football season.
North Clayton season ended Friday with a 52-13 loss at Clarke Central in the Class AAAA quarterfinals on a cold late fall night. It was the worst playoff loss since the 1998 first round when Hardaway defeated them 42-28. The Eagles posted a 10-3 record, the first time since the 1962 and '63 seasons that the school has had consecutive double-digit win seasons.
As the team heads into a long offseason, Hackney is confident the program is headed in the right direction.
"Even when you lose, you have a lot of people in an uproar," he said. "I feel we have things going in the right direction as far as the playoffs. It is not a given next season, but we are looking forward to it."
Hackney will give the players this month off before starting their offseason conditioning program in mid January for those not involved in winter sports. The Eagles will hold spring practice in May.
A revamped weight room will be a plus for the Eagles, who previous used a makeshift weight room for conditioning. Hackney will welcome back five starters on each size of the football. Although the Eagles were not able to defend its Region 4-AAAA championship, they reached the quarterfinals for the first time since the 1997 season.
"You always try to build on your playoff runs," Hackney said. "The returning players know what is at hand. They will know what to expect and have tasted some playoff success."
North Clayton will head into the offseason looking for a replacement for player of the year candidate Clarence Jackson, who has verbally committed to playing at Ole Miss next season. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound senior running back rushed for over 1,600 yards this past season. He was a big focal point in the Eagles' Wing-T attack.
Helping else the burden of the loss of Jackson will be the return of sophomore quarterback Dennis Johnson, who was thrust into the starting role after the transfer of returning starter Milton Artiss last spring. Freshman running back LaDarius Mathis will be counted on to fill the void left by Jackson, the most highly recruited North Clayton player since Morgan Burnett.
"Clarence really helped in putting us on the map," Hackney said. "Dennis and Darius will be back and that is a big plus."
The loss to Clarke Central was definitely disheartening since the Eagles were never really in the game. North Clayton turned the ball over five times, all fumbles that led to Clarke Central scores. Clarke Central scored on the game's opening drive, and again when the Eagles fumbled on the ensuing kickoff.
"It was 10-0 before we knew it," Hackney said. "I don't think we had that good of a practice. It was just an average week of practice."
Clarke Central scored 26 second-half points, and the only second half possession the Gladiators didn't score n was the final one as time expired.
"If we don't stub ourselves on the toe a few times in the first half, it would have been over by halftime," Clarke Central coach Leroy Ryals told the Athens Banner-Herald after the game.