COVID-marred season nears midway mark

Jeremiah Sowell (left) and Jeffery Pillows (99) anchor the Mt. Juliet defensive front against Gallatin.

As COVID-19 continues to ravage rosters and schedules across the midstate, state and nation, Wilson County’s seven teams are nearing halftime of their regular seasons relatively intact.

The smallest crowd in the history of the Mt. Juliet-Wilson Central rivalry, caused by Wilson County’s 50-% capacity attendance policy caused by the pandemic, is expected to be on hand when the Golden Bears visit the Wildcats for the teams’ 20th meeting. Just as important in Region 4-6A will be Lebanon’s trip to Hendersonville.

Friendship Christian, which had a game postponed two weeks ago and was without its head coach and some 14 players last week, should be back at full strength when Donelson Christian visits Pirtle Field in a makeup of the contest which was previously.

It will be a homecoming of sorts for Green Hill coach Josh Crouch when his alma mater Smyrna visits the Hawks.

Mt. Juliet at Wilson CentralBoth teams are trending in the right direction, but one will be knocked into a detour tomorrow night. The Golden Bears are undefeated through three games while the Wildcats are also on a roll with two straight wins following a pair of opening defeats.

“It’ll be a loud crowd, even if it’s not a full crowd,” predicted Mt. Juliet coach Trey Perry, who has been involved in the rivalry as either defensive coordinator or head coach since 2006. “We’ve always had very tough games at Wilson Central and we don’t expect this year to be any different.”

Both teams are also 1-0 in region play, as is Hendersonville.

“One team will wake up in first place Saturday and the other will wake up with a loss,” Perry said. “And it’s like a second loss because of tiebreakers — head-to-head. It kind of magnifies the game a little more.”

The Wildcats have bounced back from a slow start in part behind a balanced offense which has enjoyed good production.

“Coach (offensive coordinator Traye) Aric has always done a great job there,” Perry said of Wilson Central. “There’s a balance between the run and the pass… I like the quarterback (Tristan Lewis). He does a great job with timing.

“Defensively, they’re a Brad Dedman-coached defense. You’re not going to find them misaligned… They make you play assignment football because of the way they line up.”

“We’ve done what we’re supposed to do,” said Dedman, Central’s head coach/defensive coordinator. “We’ve improved as the season went on. We’re able to run the ball a considerable amount right now and Tristan Lewis has played extremely well at quarterback the last two weeks.”

Mt. Juliet has won 11 straight games in the series dating to Wilson Central’s last win in 2008. Like Perry, Dedman has been part of this rivalry a long time. This will be his 19th as an assistant or head coach. He also played in the Lebanon-Mt. Juliet rivalry as an LHS Blue Devil.

“They’re a typical Mt. Juliet football team,” Dedman said. “They love running the ball. They got two really good running backs (Conlin Baggott and Camron Malone). They have a good receiver (Jamari Sowell) and the quarterback (Stephen Swoner) does a really good job managing the football game.

“Defensively…they do a good job of attacking. They’re a good-tackling team… The defensive line makes them go. They have four really good defensive linemen. They really have six or seven good defensive linemen they rotate in and out.”

As for the rivalry?

“We got to do our part of owning up to our end,” Dedman said. “We got to pay attention to the details to stop the losing streak.”

After this week, Wilson Central will travel to Gallatin. Mt. Juliet is scheduled to have homecoming and senior night, but against who is up in the air. Maplewood was originally scheduled, but the Panthers have been unavailable as Metro Nashville Schools have not competed in any athletics this fall. Spring Hill was moved up from a couple of weeks ahead to Week 5, but the Maury County school closed earlier due to a COVID-19 outbreak and have been in virtual classrooms this week. The school not had any athletic activity since Sept. 9 and won’t be allowed to resume until the middle of next week, making it unlikely the Raiders could regroup and prepare for a visit to Mt. Juliet by next Friday. The teams’ originally-scheduled date in Week 8 is off the table as Spring Hill has to make up a region game with Tullahoma.

Ironically, a solution could come from the originally scheduled opponent, Maplewood. Metro teams have begun practicing and the Panthers could open their season at Mt. Juliet, which could otherwise lose two home games from its schedule.

“It’s imperative for us to get a home game because it’s homecoming and senior night, and we only have three home games as it is.”

Lebanon at HendersonvilleCoaches who have faced Hendersonville over the decades have said the same thing about the Commandos — wing-T offense, strong 50 defense and powerful kicking game. New coach James Beasley brought new wrinkles to the Commandos last season.

“Still running the wing-T-slash-spread, a tough 50-defense,” Lebanon coach Chuck Gentry said of the Commandos. “Got some good running backs and skill kids.

“Just a normal Hendersonville football team, just hard-nosed and tough.”

Hendersonville is 1-2 for the season following a 28-14 loss to crosstown-rival Beech last week. But the Commandos are 1-0 in Region 4-6A via a victory over Station Camp.

Lebanon is 2-2 for the year but 0-1 in the region following a loss at Mt. Juliet two weeks ago, making this week a key contest in the Blue Devils’ climb up the region standings.

“This one’s been a pivotal game the previous three years,” said Gentry, in his fourth season at LHS. “It’ll be a big challenge for us to get our first region win.

“Definitely have to be better in the kicking game. No turnovers and be able to tackle well. They’ve got some backs who will make you miss in the open field. We got to stop the trap. We haven’t stopped the trap the two or three years we’ve played them.”

The Blue Devils, who got a COVID-forfeit win in Week 2, got their first on-field victory last week via a 45-33 verdict over LaVergne despite three PAT misses. Though the Wolverines put up a lot of points behind quarterback Lavandrea Webb, Lebanon was able to keep running back Ray Banner under some semblance of control, holding him to 118 yards after having gone for 200-plus in a couple of earlier games.

“We did a better job of tackling and keeping the ball in front of us for the most part,” Gentry said of last week. “We were able to get (running back Dequantay Shannon, who scored five touchdowns) going and it helped take the pressure off the quarterback (Jalen Abston). When they’re blocking for him, (Shannon) can run.

“(Abston’s) just going to keep getting better and better as we go.”

Cascade at Watertown

The Purple Tigers have big wins over Gordonsville, Trousdale County and DeKalb County, and played well in their only loss, to Nolensville. But coach Gavin Webster is still looking for something, and has six games to see it before the playoffs.

“We would really like a complete game,” said Webster, who wasn’t happy with the offense not finishing drives against Trousdale or the slow start at DeKalb. Not that there aren’t other teams in the same boat as the season nears the midway mark.

“We’re just like anybody else, you can’t be satisfied where you are,” Webster said. “We’re not where we need to be. I don’t think anybody is where they need to be.

“We’re just trying to get better and hopefully be where we want to be by the playoffs.”

With the leg up on Trousdale in the head-to-head in Region 4-2A, this week is the first of the four remaining region games the Tigers need to take to stay on top for a possible third straight league championship.

Cascade is trying to get into the region race and is 0-1 in the league with a loss to East Robertson. The Champions are 1-2 overall coming off their first win of the season 44-0 over Huntland last week.

“Defensively, they’re based out of a 4-2,” Webster said of the Champions. “Offensively, we may see anywhere from a basic wing-T to some spread gun stuff with a tight end and a lot of motion.

“They want to show a lot of motion.”

Donelson Christian at Friendship Christian

At least the coaches had already done their homework on each other.

Scheduled to play two weeks ago, the game was moved to this week due to 14 Commanders being quarantined. Coach John McNeal joined them (in a social distancing sort of way) and watched online as the three remaining seniors, three juniors and 23 freshmen/sophomores dominated Grace Baptist (which missed its first two scheduled games) 44-7 last Friday.

“I was proud of them, and the coaches, too,” said McNeal, who planned to return to practice today and be on hand when DCA visits Pirtle Field tomorrow night. “Considering all the stuff we were going through, the younger kids stepped up and the older kids still there, they really stepped up.

“It has helped us with our depth a little bit.”

Line coach Shaun Caven took over as acting coach and offensive play-caller last week.

“The kids stepped up,” Caven said. “We had a new quarterback (Delanie Majors). We moved some pieces around to make it fit.

“Anytime you have starters out, you don’t know what to expect. All the coaches were proud of the kids for the way they came out, had fun, played through adversity and got better. That’s the key, they’re getting better.”

McNeal said the first players began returning to school Monday and were expected to trickle in throughout the week until reaching full strength.

While Friendship is 2-1 for the season and 1-1 in the East Region, DCA is 3-0, 2-0. The Wildcats, who reportedly haven’t been hit with illness themselves, have had their schedule ravaged. They picked up a forfeit region win over Middle Tennessee Christian (which didn’t take a loss in what TSSAA ruled a no-contest) while scheduling a replacement game with Summertown a day before grounding the Eagles 31-14.

“They got good size,” McNeal said of the Wildcats. “They’re going to run what they run. They’re doing more this year. They’ll still be in the I, but they’re getting in the gun and running some spread. He’ll (coach Paul Wade) mix it up between running and throwing.”

Smyrna at Green Hill

Josh Crouch was a senior catching passes from current Cincinnati Reds pitcher Sonny Gray when their Smyrna Bulldogs won the 2006 state championship. Now, Crouch is a first-year head coach at a first-year school, Green Hill. And the Bulldogs will be paying a visit tomorrow night armed with another strong-armed quarterback who has already done something Gray didn’t in high school.

“They have a sophomore quarterback (Landon Miller) who throws a lot,” Crouch said. “He started some as a freshman (Gray played on the ninth-grade team).”

Smyrna, which is 2-2, enjoys a 60-40 run-pass ratio out of the spread. The Bulldogs run a 3-4 and bring pressure, Crouch said.

“They’ve got comparable size to the three games we’ve played so far,” he said.

The Hawks are still looking for their first on-field win and are coming off a 42-0 loss at Goodpasture last week. But Crouch saw a lot of positives in that game.

“Offensive line played the best game they’ve played all year,” Crouch said. “We had three drives of 10-15 plays. We got into the red zone three times and came away with no points. That was due to interceptions, fumbles. We had a blocked field goal.”

But this is a new week.

“Maybe, we’ll put it — two or three groups — together this week,” Crouch said. “We can’t have penalties, turnovers, drive-killers.”

Franklin Grace Christian at Mt. Juliet Christian

Both teams are seeking their first East Region wins. But Grace is already 2-2 overall.

“They’re not bad this year,” Mt. Juliet Christian coach Dan Davis said of the 2-2 Lions, who are coming off a 32-22 loss to Cornersville last week. Coached by former Titans quarterback Rusty Smith, they run a 4-2-5 defense and a spread offense.

“They throw it,” Davis said of the Lions. “They’re about 50-50, 60-40 throwing the ball.

“They’re not big. They have a lot of long, lanky kids, so they try to do what they can with what they have.”

Mt. Juliet Christian is 0-4 and coming off a 54-7 loss at King’s Academy in East Tennessee in the Saints’ region opener. The game was close in the first quarter after Saints defensive back JaMarion Thomas picked up Lions fumble and returned it to the end zone, bringing MJCA to within 14-7.

As for the keys to success this week:

“The biggest thing is we have to come out playing hard and aggressive,” Davis said. “That’s the recipe for every game, really.”

This game, like all MJCA home contests this season, will be played at Mt. Juliet Middle’s Capt. Barry Wilmore Field.

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