After starting the 2012 season 5-1, the Watson Chapel Wildcats lost four of their final five games, including a first-round playoff game against Wynne, to finish the season 6-5 and tied for third place in the 5A-South conference.
“I am hoping that we have a successful campaign,” head coach George Shelton said. “I can’t say that we are expecting to be conference champs but we are certainly looking toward it.
“I would say ‘aspirations’ would be a better word than expectations. We are aspiring to win the conference and we are aspiring to have an opportunity to play for the championship.”
With at least nine starters returning on both sides of the ball, Shelton says the team’s returning experience will play in a key role in how successful the Wildcats are this year.
“There is no substitute for experience,” Shelton said. “We had some sophomores that got an opportunity to play last year and now that they are juniors, we are expecting them to play much better than they did last year.”
Shelton said the biggest challenge in that aspect will be getting the veteran players to rise to their potential.
“Based on the amount of experience and ability that we have, we are hoping for that,” Shelton said. “We also want to see some of our first-year starters actually deliver on their ability and opportunities that they’ve earned by moving to a starting role.
Basically, it comes down to maturity.
“I think we will see some improvement in that area,” Shelton said. “We had some kids that were young that played critical positions as sophomores.
“Now in their junior year, I think they are ready to step forward and perform well at their positions.”
Junior linebacker Quinton Douglas returns this year after gaining 20 pounds this spring.
“We are extremely high on him,” Shelton said. “He has the size and strength that puts him on the radar as a college recruit going into his senior year.
“We expect him to really move forward in his game.”
Junior Kristen Trammell, who runs a 4.6, returns as a starting defensive back.
“He is a tremendous leader and has a great attitude,” Shelton said. “He is a team player and he makes people around him better every day.”
Shelton said Tyon Williams and Kelwin Johnson will return as the two cornerbacks and should provide a key role for the Wildcat defense.
“At the line, Michael Baker brings a lot of intensity and aggression to the game,” Shelton said. “We are hoping that he can maintain his composure in combat and if he does that and improve his technique, he has all the physical tools to play on Saturday.”
Senior all-state linebacker Josh Harris bench-presses 275 pounds and Shelton said he is “probably one of the top linebackers in the state.”
“He is very instinctive and strong and a model student,” Shelton said.
Veteran running back Devonte Battles returns after rushing for almost 1,000 yards and earning all-state honors last season.
“We are hoping to see him improve upon what he was able to do last year,” Shelton said.
For the Wildcats this season, the game could hinge on how well the offensive and defensive line plays. Or as Shelton calls them, “The Christmas tree.”
“Your wide receivers, quarterbacks and running backs are nothing more than ornaments on a tree,” Shelton said. “What really makes the Christmas tree is the tree, not the ornaments.”
Shelton said the strength of any football team is going to be its linemen.
“It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a bunch of fast guys,” Shelton said. “All of those guys depend on the people up front.
“Normally, that’s where the game is going to be decided. I think every coach has concerns about that.”
Watson Chapel has an open week on the first week of the season, but will host Pine Bluff — the 6A state runner-up — on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m.
“We want our non-conference schedule to be as difficult and as challenging as we can make it,” Shelton said. “And this year it is no different.”
The Wildcats will face Nashville in a non-conference game the following week. Nashville finished last season with 10 wins and a conference championship.