Don’t tell Derek Cook’s boys they aren’t big enough.
The Kell Longhorns spent their first few years as one of Class 5A’s smaller schools. But it didn’t show on the football field. A state playoff team two years running, Cook’s team entered Region 5, Class 4A this past offseason with a solid pedigree accompanying them.
But after a stellar 3-0 start against Class 5A opponents Grayson, Etowah and Woodstock, the state’s highest classification is probably relieved they don’t have to see the Longhorns in region or playoff play after the performance. Meanwhile, Kell moves onto region play against a host of teams that they aren’t used to lining up against. Which should make the final seven games of the season an interesting experience for the No. 6 team, a squad with plenty of talent and experience, and a chance to make a deep run into the postseason should things fall there way.
“It is a very exciting time for us,” Cook said.
BUILDING CHARACTER …
Almost half of the Longhorns’ starters from last year returned. And they all entered this year battle tested after a unique season of ups and downs last year. Kell started off the year at 0-3, three of those losses in region play, and looked dead and buried.
But with essentially no margin for error remaining, Kell responded like champions. The Longhorns responded from a 14-0 haftime deficit against Pope to get their first win of the season, and then came back from 27-19 down to beat Centennial in overtime. The fight shown by his team carried into the playoffs, as the team won their final six games and went toe-to-toe with heavily-favored Peachtree Ridge before losing 14-7.
“The season certainly gave them some confidence and we showed it against Peachtree Ridge,” Cook said, “Although we were a very small 5A school it solidified that we could compete with anyone on any given night.
The move from ultra-tough Region 6, Class 5A surely helps the ‘Horns’ chances. But it didn’t change a thing for Cook, and it was business as usual for KHS over the summer, as the head coach didn’t change a thing about summer workouts.
“We’re still using the same practice schedule,” said Cook. “I don’t really think you change your approach other than week-to-week. Obviously we are playing some different people in the past.”
It’s not like things are about to get easy for Cook’s team. Their subregion is chalk full of talent with teams like No. 7 Hiram, previous Class 5A rival Pope, and this week’s opponent, East Paulding. The Raiders are also 3-0, making this week’s test an important region opener.
“They’ve been very successful,” Cook said. “They’ve been a playoff team in 5A and 4A. They’re a big physical football team. They’ve got some athletes on the field and some size.”
Fortunately, the first three victories against high level competition means Cook’s team won’t be shocked or surprised by the challenge.
“The first three were a real physical battle we’ve already been there and done that,” Cook said. “It’s just a higher stakes situation were just taking it one at a time just like we did every week.”
TALENT AND TRUST …
There’s plenty of ability on this year’s Kell team, and RB/DB Brian Randolph is likely the best example of that. The speedy Tennessee commit had offers from Georgia and Florida, and projects as a safety at the next level.
“Brian isn’t the loudest guy,” Cook said. “But he’s not trying to be the loudest guy. He spends all his energy going hard on every play instead of talking,” Cook said.
While Randolph’s numbers on the ground haven’t wowed anyone thus far this season, Cook credited him for his help defensively at safety, giving Vol fans something to smile about as he is leading a strong secondary that has played well this season. Cook explained that his drop in offensive production is nothing to be worried about.
“He’s played a lot on offense but not really racking up the yards,” Cook said, “We’ve found that people are game-planning and scheming to take him away from our offense. And other guys have stepped up.”
Among those players are running back Chris Gaines, athletic Jamari Moore who helps in he run and pass game, and receiver Michael Valero.
Everyone is also raving about wide receiver Hunter Marshall, who caught several big passes on a day where he caught six balls for 76 yards.
But if the coach had to pick his team’s most important player, it would be their leader under center. Senior Austin Petrik has steadily improved during his time at Kell, and now Cook says he has the utmost trust in his cerebrally aware quarterback, who sports a 3.9 GPA.
“I’d trust Austin Petrik with my children, little less my offense,” Cook said.
Cook actually breathes a sigh of relief in having a quarterback of Petrik’s nature: a solid but unspectacular leader who rarely makes mistakes.
“His main strength is his game management,” Cook said. “He gets us in the right place. It allows him to be an extension of me on the field. I’ve gotta coach him up to the degree with what he’s looking for. I’m able to send us a play and Austin puts us in the right set. In terms of value to our team, I put Austin up there with anyone.”
GUNNING FOR TITLES …
In it’s eight years of existence, Kell High School hasn’t been known for its football. But that could all be changing under Cook, who has put his teams in the playoffs the last two years, and now leads a talented team that knows what it takes to win after battling back from adversity last season. But Cook knows that it’s still early.
“Our first six last year were pretty challenging,” he said. “I hope we don’t start 4-0 and then lose six in a row. The opposite of last year.”
Last season’s hot streak appears to have carried into 2010, with three great wins. With a nice mix of big time talents like Randolph and a consistent supporting cast, they appear to be heading for great things in their first season in Class 4A.
“We just tell them as soon as they start getting a big head, (they) will lose,” Cook said. “You’ve got to continue to do the things that got you where you are. Which is staying humble and focused.”