And while there have been some growing pains during the transition, this ensemble is coming into its own and forming a new identity on the field. The 2012 version of the Carrollton Trojans may not have all the swagger and Division I talent of recent years, rather it’s proven to be a blue-collar ball club that hangs its hat on hustle and hard work.
“I think it’s just really playing as a team. I mean, we don’t have as much talent this year as we’ve had in some of the years past. We do have a lot of talent, but we really play together as one unit and nobody is worried about themselves or what they do on the stat sheet. We’re just worried about winning the game,” noted junior tight end Cole Cook, one of just a handful of returning starters from last season’s AAA state quarterfinal squad.
So as the second-seeded Trojans (8-3) prep for a trip to Atlanta to face top-seeded and second-ranked Marist (10-1) in the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs on Friday, they’ve spent time this week reflecting on just how far they’ve come since fall camp and that season-opening loss to Oxford (Ala.).
“All of it wasn’t necessarily youth, it was just inexperience. I think as we’ve played 11 games now — 12 counting the scrimmage — they’ve gained a lot of valuable experience. The kids have taken to the coaching really well. They were always strong, they always worked hard. We had a great summer and put the reps in. But just game experience has definitely had them grow a lot over the year,” explained Carrollton coach Rayvan Teague.
In squaring off with a veteran and senior-oriented War Eagle squad this week, Carrollton is quite the opposite.
The Trojans feature first-year starters all over the field, including a pair of junior signal-callers in Will Hesterlee and Wil Garrett, junior Trey Chivers and freshman Jarvis Terrell in the backfield and juniors Andrew Turner and Chip Murrah on the perimeter. On the line, Cook and fellow junior Jake Sanders are returning starters for the most experienced unit on the team.
Defensively, there was an entire makeover in the secondary, though junior Malik Sheppard did see more and more action as the year went on last season. The defensive line, which had to replace three-year starter and all-state performer Tevin McCoy, has been a bright spot, led by junior Dontavious Russell.
And even though several guys got their first taste of the playoffs last week in the 40-7 rout of Stephens County, Carrollton doesn’t necessarily consider itself a team that lacks experience, especially having played three prominent regular-season games against Oxford and at respective No. 1s Sandy Creek and Calhoun.
“I don’t think it’s an inexperience thing any more, because we have a whole season under our belts now. I feel like we can play with anybody,” Russell said.
With a combined six returning starters on both sides of the ball, the Trojans entered the season as one of the most inexperienced squads Teague has coached at Carrollton. The 11th-year Trojan head man said it’s a credit to the program as a whole that you can have such a high turnover and still enjoy success.
“One year we started the year with two returning defensive starters and maybe three on offense. About like this. We ended up going 9-3 that year. So we’ve done it here, and that’s what’s the beauty of the place is — just the program and how we always say we out-program people. That’s because our kids, they just put the time in and they work like they’re starters whether they are or not,” Teague said. “That pays dividends. Because when they’re called on, they’re able to perform at a very high level.”
Although it’s been a work-in-progress through the season, Carrollton has greatly improved from the start of the year to this point, putting together one of its best overall showings of the season in the opening-round victory over the Indians last week. Teague is hopeful that will snowball into the second round and ultimately take the Trojans to Game 13.
“I think offensively we’ve really got some great, young talent. We’ve got more size on the front than we’ve had in years past. I think that unit has really come together and performed super well. I think defensively, it’s just the effort that the kids have put in and the coaches have put in with a good game plan every week,” Teague said. “We’ve just flown around and overachieved on that side of the ball. We’re not extremely athletic on that side of the ball, but we give it everything we’ve got and they’ve done a really good job with that.”
Although expectations are always high at Carrollton, Russell believes this particular team had its share of doubters on the outside when the season started.
“I feel like we’ve surprised people because not many people expected us to be and play as fluidly as we have in the past. But we’ve come out and played much like the teams before us. I think we’ll still surprise a lot of people,” Russell said.
So perhaps it’s fitting that the Trojans will be underdogs this week. After all, it’s a role this group has grown to embrace this fall.
“I think a lot of people didn’t expect much from us coming into this season. I think we’ve really come together as a team. We believe in each other, no matter what people outside say,” Cook said. “We’ve grown up a lot and I feel like we’re going to have a successful time in the playoffs.”