Photo by Derrick Mahone / Travis Custis (left) and Arshad Jackson helped Lovejoy turn into one of the top programs in the state, and it doesn't look like the Wildcats are going away any time soon.
Here it comes again. On Monday, the first high school football teams will begin spring practice and continue throughout May. Get ready for depth charts and college coaches, new faces and fresh optimism.
One thing’s clear — some do it better than others. To ring in the first signs of high school football in 2013, the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald teamed up to rank the Southern Crescent’s top programs. It’s our subjective view picked by balancing performance with potential and using a variety of factors — facilities, community support, talent, tradition, etc.
Our list of the top programs in the Southern Crescent begins with (drum roll) ...
1. Union Grove
Pros: There may not be a Southern Crescent school that captures the essence of Friday Night Lights better. There’s always talent, an enthusiastic student section and supportive administration and community. Plus, the school’s academic reputation is a big draw for parents.
Cons: For a program with so much going for it, the Wolverines have had five coaches in 13 seasons and advanced past the second round of the state playoffs just once (2002). Because of student population and geography, Union Grove has been put in strong regions.
Final verdict: If there’s a Southern Crescent school with the potential to become a high school destination job, Union Grove is it.
Pros: The Wildcats seem to offer almost the entire package when it comes to winning and producing college prospect. Consecutive trips to the state finals has created a buzz.
Cons: There are very little negatives to be found at Lovejoy, because the program has tons going for itself. Building more consistent fan support would keep them among the elite. The Wildcats have made a state run the last two seasons despite playing in a relative weak region.
Final verdict: This is definitely the showcase program in Clayton County with its 34-4 record over the last three seasons. The Wildcats have produced tons of college prospects and has only one regular season lost during that time frame.
Pros: Solid facilities, improving talent base, strong community support — the Bulldogs have a lot going for them these days. Dutchtown built a reputation under previous head coach Jason Galt as a tough, aggressive team that expected to win.
Cons: The Bulldogs have been successful but only have one playoff appearance to show for it — 2010’s quarterfinals appearance. It’s talent isn’t quite upper echelon, though it’s trending that way.
Final verdict: Dutchtown really started to emerge as one of the county’s most competitive programs under Galt. With former Lovejoy defensive coordinator Kevin Jones taking over as head coach, the Bulldogs could be poised to take that next step.
4. Eagle's Landing Christian Academy
Pros: ELCA is a private Christian school that has produced its share of college prospects. Its state championship this past season was the first by a school in Henry County. A spacious weight room gives the Chargers a big advantage.
Cons: Being a small school, ELCA doesn’t always get the notoriety. ELCA always has to deal with the recruiting stigma that most successful private schools have been labeled.
Final verdict: Program has shown it can compete on a state-wide basis despite its size. School offers a strong faith-based education with a successful on the field product.
4. North Clayton
Pros: The school has always produced talent. Because of it has traditionally had success, the expectations on the program are usually high.
Cons: North Clayton is usually forced to play up in classification to maintain its natural rivalries and reduce travel cost. This has hurt in recent seasons as the program doesn’t have the depth to compete against bigger schools.
Final verdict: This is still an attractive job for a coach because of the talent that still goes through the school. A drop in classification could probably level the playing field and give them an opportunity to be successful.
Pros: Talent has never been a problem for the Lions. From Rod Sweeting to D’Mario Gunn to Detrick Bonner to Alvin Hill and most recently Tevin Jones, Luella has never wanted for talent. It’s also good in the facilities and fan support categories.
Cons: Luella is going to feel the pains of Hampton High opening in 2014. It’s being built to ease over-enrollment at Luella, which means fewer athletes for the Lions. Luella has traditionally been put in ultra-competitive regions against teams with richer football traditions.
Final verdict: Just one winning season in 10 years isn’t flattering, but Luella’s one of those schools that could get on a roll if everything came together.
7. Forest Park
Pros: OK, this program hasn’t produced a playoff season since 1996. But the Panthers have had a history of winning and a big alumni base that could come around if the winning picks up. There is also a sense of community in Forest Park.
Cons: Because of the lack of winning, many alumni do not seem to feel connected to the school any longer. The program has gone through several coaches in the past few seasons to build any consistency.
Final verdict: Current renovations to the school might spark some much-needed pride. Finding a coach willing to endure the struggles with the hope of producing future wins will be paramount for the program to gain some footing.
Pros: Over the last four seasons, coach Kevin Whitley has shown that winning can occur at Stockbridge. Prior to Whitley’s arrival, Stockbridge had never been to a state playoff game.
Cons: Building a fan base with its newfound winning has been slow. Many times during the playoffs last season, the visiting team had just as many fans. The lack of a winning tradition is a big obstacle in producing more community-wide fan support.
Final verdict: This is a program on the rise. Whitley has proven to be a solid coach, and now the team has some college prospects that makes them a playoff contender.
Pros: The school is located in an area of the county that has produced some talent. It is a new school and students seemingly want to go there. Coach Jarrett Laws has a track record of being a solid coach.
Cons: Its a new school with no tradition or history. The Titans are still looking for their first playoff win in school history.
Final verdict: Stepping out of the shadows of North Clayton and Riverdale will go a long way in helping the program establish itself. Drew will need to make some consecutive playoff appearances and win to help build its program.
10. Mount Zion
Pros: This program has a winning tradition and has produced some talent. Four years ago, the team was in contention of making a strong playoff run.
Cons: The program has had trouble sustaining success. The emergence of Jonesboro and the building of Drew has taken from its talent base. A lack of fan support has not helped in rebuilding the program.
Final verdict: Can Mount Zion become a winner again? The program played a lot of young players this past season. Coach Ervin Starr has a connection to the middle school feeder program.
Pros: A sleeping giant has been awakened the last three seasons. With the school establishing itself as one of the best in the county, many students want to attend. There is a strong alumni base and a sense of community in Jonesboro.
Cons: The lack of a winning tradition has hurt in establishing a consistent fan base. Most of the program’s success has occured in the last few years. Can the program continue to grow?
Final verdict: There is some talent at Jonesboro, and a community that would support a winner. If the team can string together a few playoff runs, it would start to tap into its promising potential.
12. Eagle’s Landing
Pros: Eagle’s Landing has better ingredients than its record might suggest. The school is undergoing its first major renovation in years, which includes a new football field, and the rising senior class is full of exciting talent.
Cons: Success has been fleeting. Every competitive season (1995, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2008) has been followed by a swift decline. The school’s district is land-locked, and families in Eagle’s Landing Country Club across the street send their kids to private schools like Woodward Academy.
Final verdict: Just look at how students, faculty and the community got behind the school’s state championship boys basketball team. A successful football team could tap into that same fan-base.
Pros: There is some talent and tradition at the school. The program has experienced some inconsistency in the past, but seem to be on the upswing. A solid feeder program seems to have some incoming talent.
Cons: Its lack of winning has some to be a big obstacle in drawing some fan support. Former coach Olten Downs did a lot in instilling some pride and winning into the program, but he has moved on to Creekside.
Final verdict: The program is at a big junction with a coaching search. Riverdale is coming off to successful season, and the new coach will have to build on it to make it an even more attractive program.
Pros: It took Woodland just three years after opening in 2007 to make the state playoffs. That was a good sign the program can be competitive. It’s had good coaching stability under Scott Schmitt and solid community support.
Cons: While the Wolfpack have sent their fair share of players off to college — only Henry County High had more playing in college last season — they’ve lacked elite talent. Not that elite talent is necessary to win, but it sure helps.
Final verdict: One winning season in six years isn’t great, but Woodland’s still too new to jump to conclusions. Given some time, it could jump up in these rankings.
15. Henry County
Pros: It is the oldest school in county history and has a big alumni base. There is a sense of community with the school sitting right off the city square. Henry County has produced some talented players.
Cons: The continued growth of the county has been away from the county seat. New schools are pulling away from the talent base. New programs have better facilities.
Final verdict: Henry County is at a crossroads with its program as other schools in the county are becoming more established. The program is in a rebuilding mode after 32 seniors graduated two years ago. How patient will the fans be during this transition period?
Pros: There’s something to be said for tradition and Morrow has it thanks to the work for former coaches Bud Theodocion (1977-87), Willie Oswalt (1988-93) and Jerry Moore (1994-98).
Cons: Sure, it seems like the program has fallen apart. No winning season since 1998. Seven different coaches since then, including a couple hiring debacles. Top talent has transferred out of the district, especially to Stockbridge.
Final verdict: For all the obstacles Morrow faces, it still has potential. Stopping the loss of promising talent to neighboring schools would go a long way. It should help having someone like second-year coach Leroy Foster who won three state championships in Florida.
17. Locust Grove
Pros: Henry County’s newest school has all the perks of its still-shining digs and an eager community still excited about bringing high school football to the county’s most rural parts. And then there’s Cortez McDowell, the program’s first high-profile prospect. The rising senior already has 21 scholarship offers. His presence alone could help elevate the program’s reputation.
Cons: So far the biggest obstacle has been developing depth of talent in the program. Getting thrust into a region with more established programs (Griffin, North Clayton, Riverdale) and up-and-comers (Dutchtown, Stockbridge) hasn’t helped.
Final verdict: Here’s another program where if things take off, the true essence of Friday Night Lights would grow. Going 6-4 last season for the program’s first winning campaign was a good start.
18. Mundy’s Mill
Pros: Its one of the newer schools in the Southern Crescent area. It has produced pockets of talent athletes.
Cons: It is a direct rival of powerhouse Lovejoy and is only a few miles from emerging Jonesboro. A lack of winning tradition has been hard to overcome.
Final verdict: The program will need to produce some consistent winning to overcome its lack of recognition and fan support.
Pros: Ola’s community loves high school sports. Emphasis on loves. They’ve gotten behind a program that’s never won more than four games. They’d surely be all-in for a winning team. And there’s been some impressive talent (Ra’Chard Pippens, Tre McBride, etc.) to come through recently.
Cons: For whatever reason, things haven’t worked out for the Mustangs. There’s been bad breaks (overtime losses) and tragedy (sophomore lineman Jason Holland’s death). They’ve gone from one tough region (4-AAAA) to another (3-AAAA) to another (4-AAAAA).
Final verdict: When everything comes together for Ola, the stadium will be packed — with the school’s signature “O-Zone” student section — and another Henry County school would get the taste of Friday Night Lights.
20. Strong Rock
Pros: The program has great facilities and seemly a fanbase eager for a winner.
Cons: It hasn’t produced much winning since joining the Georgia High School Association. It is one of the newer programs in the area and will take time to get established.
Final verdict: The program hired a proven winner in Mark Miller, who in turn hired a veteran staff. There seems to be a lot of potential with outstanding facilities and a veteran coaching staff.