Seth Orren walked off the muddy field inside Oakland High School’s Ray Hughes Stadium on Nov. 23, 2018, and vowed that his senior season at Maryville would not end the same way his junior campaign had.
The Rebels not only missed out on a chance to play for a Class 6A BlueCross Bowl championship for the second time in three years, but they went out in embarrassing fashion. A 38-0 loss to the Patriots was the program’s largest margin of defeat since 1936 and its first time being shut out since 2000.
“All throughout summer we’ve been focused on one goal, and that’s to not let that happen again,” Orren told The Daily Times. “No one wants to go out in their last season with a loss before the state championship. It means a lot to me, and we’re doing everything in our power to make sure we’re all on the same page going into this year.”
Maryville has won one state championship in the past four years, its fewest in a four-year span since 1996-99. While most programs would settle for that kind of success, that output falls well below expectations for the state’s most dominant program since the turn of the century.
That’s a lot of weight to put on a group of kids ranging from 14 to 18 years old, but to their credit, the Rebels are embracing the pressure. Led by 34 seniors, the goal is to not only get back to Cookeville but also leave with the 17th Gold Ball in program history.
“That is the battle — getting your kids to understand that this is the expectation and they have to live up to it,” Maryville coach Derek Hunt said. “When they can set the bar themselves and lead their teammates to live up to that standard, that’s when you know you’re going to have a good year.
“We have a lot of good leaders in this senior class — a lot of mature kids, not just good football players who are signing Division-I scholarships.”
It helps to have the latter, too, and Maryville is equipped with one of its more talented rosters in recent memory.
Tennessee commit and senior running back Tee Hodge joins senior wide receiver A.J. Davis to form one of the most dynamic play-making duos in the state. Hodge rushed for 805 yards and 19 touchdowns on 131 carries (6.1 yards per carry) last season before suffering a broken leg against Farragut in the Class 6A quarterfinals. Davis hauled in 71 catches for 867 yards and seven touchdowns.
Indiana State commit Cade Chambers will be the quarterback getting them the ball after splitting time with Braden Carnes last season. Carnes transferred to Greenback over the summer. Chambers threw for 1,046 yards and 12 touchdowns while rushing for 278 yards and two scores.
“Any coach is going to tell you that if you don’t lean on your best players, you’ve messed up,” Hunt said. “We’ll lean on them a whole lot, but (senior wide receiver) Ashton Maples and (senior tight end) Brody Sloan had unbelievable springs. “I’m really excited about the balance that we’re going to have on offense and hopefully we can be difficult to defend and score a lot of points because of that balance.”
The Rebels averaged 34.4 points and 367.1 yards per game last season, and those numbers could be even better this year if the offensive line takes a step forward after an inconsistent 2018.
A lack of experience was the cause for those struggles, but a 14-game learning curve and an offseason focused on improving has Maryville confident in seniors Mason Hobby, Tommy Ledford, Seth Hair, Trevor Abdella and Fisher Coalson ahead of its season opener against William Blount on Aug. 23.
“Football is all about the lines, both of them,” Hunt said. “If you have a better line, you’re going to have a good chance of winning. We’ve spent a lot of time trying to develop that because we do have to be better, and I think we will be.
“That’s certainly been a priority for us since the early 2000s because when you prioritize the line, everything else falls into place. We’ve got a lot of good kids who have worked hard, so I’m excited to see them get to compete this year.”
Maryville will also have to contend with replacing seven defensive starters — three of four on the defensive line and its entire secondary. An Aug. 2 scrimmage in which Knoxville Catholic cruised down the field showed that unit is still a work in progress.
“We’re still trying to get to know each other,” said Davis, who will play cornerback along with receiver. “It’s our first year really starting and playing together, so we’re trying to get a feel for each other, but we’ll click before the start of the season.”
A 20-year legacy of success puts the Rebels on a list of preseason state title contenders entering every season, but champions aren’t crowned in August.
However, they can take an important first step, and this group of Rebels — driven by an unprecedented loss — is doing whatever it takes to make this November different than the last.
“(That Oakland loss) was a disappointment because we obviously wanted to win state and we fell short of that,” Davis said. “This year, we’re just trying to bounce back. Our goal is the same as it always is: Win another ring.”
Follow @Troy_Provost on Twitter for more from sports reporter Troy Provost-Heron. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.