With a young roster, Heritage suffered through a winless season last year. The lowest margin of defeat was a 20-point loss to Sevier County in week two. Many players return this fall from that 0-10 season, but the numbers still don’t look so good for the Mountaineers.
Heritage enters the 2019 campaign with a small roster of 53 players, including five returning seniors.
Coach Tim Hammontree pointed out that even Class 1A and 2A teams in the area usually have larger rosters and more upperclassmen than his Region 2-6A squad.
“We’re pretty young,” quarterback and outside linebacker Triston Hurst said. “Our biggest class is the junior class. A lot of us have gotten varsity time but still, experience-wise, we’re pretty young.”
The Mountaineers will dress over a dozen freshmen on Friday nights and before the season is over, many of those youngsters could be in position to fill larger roles.
Hammontree knows the dangers of throwing younger players on the field against behemoth juniors and seniors, but the low numbers and injuries forced his hand in 2018.
“We hesitated putting a lot of 14 or 15-year old boys out on the field,” Hammontree told The Daily Times. “We’re in charge of taking care of them, so we can’t throw them to the proverbial wolves. We’d like for them to stay out there and play all four years.”
Given the low numbers, most Heritage starters will see action on both sides of the ball again this year. There are five or six returners on each unit that got solid experience last season.
Hammontree said that virtually all of his secondary and skill players will go both ways. Attempts will be made to rotate linemen when possible, however the Mountaineers are short in skilled linemen, Hammontree said.
“If we put five out on offense and they have to go on defense too, we saw that attrition last year,” he said. “As it went through the season we tried our best to rest people but sometimes that’s impossible.”
The low numbers extend to the staff. Hammontree and four assistants plus one volunteer carry the load that might be shared by as many as 10 coaches at other schools.
On Hammontree’s staff for seven years, Robert Reeves will be the new offensive coordinator this fall.
“(Reeves) is very knowledgeable,” Hammontree said. “He’s got us a good plan and we’re going to follow the plan.”
Executing the run-pass option scheme will be Hurst, who will alternate with fellow junior Zach Hollman. Both players rotated under center last year after the position was beset with several injuries.
“(Hurst) played about four different positions last year, and he is a physical kid,” Hammontree said. “He’s quick. He can throw and run. He’ll do a lot of stuff.”
On offense, Hurst lined up at virtually every offensive skill position last year and played outside linebacker.
“I’ll play anywhere they need me to, to help make us a better team,” Hurst said. “Hollman throws it better so they’ll have me at receiver or running back at times.”
A likely target for either quarterback will be senior receiver Dusty Foxx.
“(Foxx) is a really good athlete — one of the top athletes we have,” Hammontree said. “He’s done a great job leading and running routes at practice.”
With several experienced returners, the offensive line should improved this season even though it is still young. Ryan Ellis, a 6-foot-1, 290-pound center, is the only senior slated to start.
“Last year was mostly freshmen so that laid a foundation,” the home-schooled Ellis said.
“We want to rotate players and keep everybody fresh but with low numbers it’ll be hard.”
The Mountaineer defense surrendered 491 points last season.
“If we are looking at anything overall, we’re just looking to tackle better,” Hammontree said. “We’re small up front. We’ll be a 3-5-3 type of team, trying to get them to move in a lot of different directions to get them unblocked.”
Hammontree said that there was no dominant group in the defense, but the Mountaineers had a handful of new players coming into fall practice that are “linebacker types,” that may build depth.
“We want to get as many people as we can on the field as fresh as we can for two or three downs because we’re very short in skilled linemen,” Hammontree said.
One addition has appeared in practice this month, with senior Zac Shuttles from the soccer team coming in to impress in the kicking game. Hammontree said Shuttles has a strong leg and has been “a real surprise.”
The small group of Heritage seniors are optimistic that the team can hold together, keep morale and show improvement.
“I’d like to improve team-wise, maybe get a couple of wins, maybe just build as a team,” safety and wide receiver Kurt Headrick said. “We have most of the payers coming back so I feel we can get better as a whole unit. We’re getting bigger and stronger, and hope we can improve in our record.”
Hurst echoes the moderate expectations.
“It’s not about wins or losses, it’s about moral victories and to see how far we can progress through the season,” Hurst said. “We’re still young and a smaller group of guys, so our goal is to see how close we can get and how much of a bond we can build this season for next year and the years to come.”