The last two years represented a revival to the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s for Ariton’s football program.
The Purple Cats posted 19 wins for their best consecutive seasons in a quarter of a century to head coach Julius Head’s final two years (1993-94) of his first tenure at the Dale County school.
Coming off a 9-4 season that featured two state playoff wins for the first time since 1993, Ariton hopes to continue the momentum in 2019.
Head coach Steven Kilcrease, in his fourth year at AHS, is optimistic about this year’s team, which returns six starters on offense and five on defense. It also features playing of experience.
“We feel good about our team,” Kilcrease said. “Our numbers are up. We lost four-five guys that will be hard to replace, two guys up front and two or three skill guys who will be difficult to replace. We will be depending on some young guys, especially outside (at wide receiver). We are not completely inexperienced (out there) as we have three guys that have played for us last year at some point.
“We feel good about our front on both sides of the ball. Our inside linebackers on defense are going to be really good. Our secondary will be improved and that was sort of our weak link last year.
“Defensively we feel we will be a much better team than we were last year. Offensively, we will be fine. It will just take some time to figure out what we can do or what we can be good in certain areas.”
The offense will be directed by senior Maddux Herring, who enters his third year as the starting quarterback. The left-handed QB threw for 1,115 yards and 13 touchdowns with only four interceptions last season. He also rushed for 230 yards and four scores.
“Maddux has the experience and he is a hard-nosed guy,” Kilcrease said. “He can throw the football a mile. He can run between the tackles. He brings a lot to the table.”
The 6-foot, 200-pounder was slowed in the summer by a partial UCL tear in his elbow, but has been full go since the start of preseason practices.
Blake Carroll (Sr., 6-1, 215) returns as H-back in the Purple Cat offense, but the bulk of the returners are up front even though Ariton lost two-time all-state selection Matthews Spencer. The line features every player at 200 pounds or better.
Ethan Clark (Sr., 5-11, 235), Chase Hughes (Jr., 5-11, 270), Noah Phillips (Jr., 5-11, 270) and Jackson Baker (Jr., 5-10, 200) are the returning starters. Kendle Sullivan (Jr., 6-5, 305) and Callan Neathawk (Sr., 6-0, 227) are also expected to see a lot of playing time.
Neathawk came to Ariton late last season after his family was displaced from Panama City by Hurricane Michael. He played tight end last year, but will be moved to the interior of the line at guard or tackle.
The Purple Cats lost all-state wide receiver/athlete Byron Peavy as well as wide receiver/fullback Daniel Hicks, who combined for 55 receptions and 12 touchdowns last year before graduating. Kilcrease said a host of players will try to fill the void, including Logan Harrell (Jr., 5-10, 160), Cade Webb (Jr., 5-11, 165), Hayes Floyd (Jr., 6-2, 185) and Landon Thrash (Jr., 5-8, 145).
Floyd, a point guard on Ariton’s basketball team, is playing football for the first time since seventh grade. He filled the quarterback role in Maddux’s absence in the summer and could see time at the position during the season, said Kilcrease.
“He and Blake (Carroll) actually made a deal last year where Blake would play basketball and Hayes would play football,” Kilcrease said. “Hayes loves it (football). He worked at quarterback all summer with Maddux out. He is smart and picks up on things.
“He is similar to Bryson (Peavy), except not as big. He can jump and catch. Defensively at safety, he is so smart. I think he will be the best safety we’ve had since we have been there. He just has instincts. He also has range.”
Carroll, last year’s leading tackler with 95 tackles, including five for losses, is expected to anchor the defense from his linebacker spot.
“He has started at middle linebacker for two years,” Kilcrease said. “He is that bell cow over there and we are expecting big things out of him. He is a leader on defense. He doesn’t say a word, but he is a good kid that once he steps between the lines is a different guy.”
Clark and Hughes return as defensive line starters and the secondary returns Webb and Thrash at cornerback and safety.
Neathawk and Tommy Oliver (Sr., 6-4, 220) are others expected to contribute on the defensive line, while Herring and Tate Knighten (So., 5-11, 175) are expected to help Carroll at linebacker in the Purple Cats’ 3-4 defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Chuck Dunn.
Floyd is expected to start at safety joining Webb and Thrash in the secondary.
“We don’t have a lot of guys who return as starters (on defense), but every single one of these guys with the exception of Hayes played last year,” Kilcrease said.
The kicking game features the return of Jared Romero (Sr., 5-8, 160) for field goals, extra points and kickoffs. Knighten will handle the punting duties. Floyd will hold for the field goals and extra points and Baker will provide the long snapping chores for punting and kicks.
PURPLE CATS AT A GLANCE
>> Head coach: Steven Kilcrease (4th year at Ariton, 25-11; 9th year as a head coach, 67-27)
>> 2018 record: 9-4 overall, 5-2 in Class 2A, Region 2, Class 2A state quarterfinals
>> 2018 results: Dale County (L, 19-41); at Goshen (W, 29-6); Geneva County # (L, 29-36); at Houston County # (W, 34-0); at Daleville # (W, 42-20); Slocomb (W, 35-32); at Abbeville # (L, 0-30); Barbour County # (W, 53-0); G.W. Long # (W, 42-6); vs. Cottonwood (played at Rehobeth High School) # (W, 47-28). STATE PLAYOFFS: at Thorsby (W, 41-14); Cottage Hill (W, 36-27); at Highland Home (L, 14-28)
>> Points scored/per game: 421/32.4
>> Points allowed/per game: 268/20.6
>> Returning offensive starters (6): QB Maddux Herring (Sr., 6-0, 200): HB Blake Carroll (Sr., 6-1, 215); C Ethan Clark (Sr., 5-11, 235); OG Chase Hughes (Jr., 5-11, 270); OT Noah Phillips (Jr., 6-2, 280); OG Jackson Baker (Jr., 5-10, 200)
>> Returning defensive starters (5): DL Ethan Clark (Sr., 5-11, 235); DL Chase Hughes (Jr., 5-11, 270); LB Blake Carroll (Sr., 6-1, 215); DB Cade Webb (Jr., 5-11, 165); S Landon Thrash (Jr., 5-8, 145).
Aug. 23 at Dale County
Aug. 30 Goshen
Sept. 6 at Geneva County #
Sept. 13 Houston County #
Sept. 20 Daleville #
Sept. 27 at Slocomb
Oct. 4 Abbeville #
Oct. 11 at Barbour County #
Oct. 18 at G.W. Long #
Oct. 25 Cottonwood #
Nov. 1 off
# Denotes region games