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Photo by Ted Melton
Spain Park Football
2 of 2
Photo by Ted Melton
Spain Park Football
When a high school football coach identifies the graduations of his punter and kicker as his team’s most significant losses, it can mean one of two things: the pair was immensely talented, or the team is stacked with returners at all other positions.
Spain Park can relate to the former.
In graduating kickoff specialist and punter Tyler Sumpter, along with place-kicker Crosby Gray, the Jags lost two pivotal assets from their 2015 team that won 12 games and reached the Class 7A state final.
“Two of the best I’ve ever been around,” Spain Park head coach Shawn Raney said. “Those two kids in every facet—kickoff, punt that Tyler did to the field goals that Crosby did—it was just almost automatic. I don’t know if I’ve ever been a part of something like that, especially at the high school level.”
The pair proved invaluable down the stretch last season as the Jags eked out victory after victory.
Sumpter’s booming kickoffs and punts continually tilted the battle for field position, while Gray’s sure-footed field goals lifted the team to critical victories in both region and playoff matchups.
Sumpter averaged over 45 yards per punt and induced touchbacks on more than 75 percent of his kickoffs. Likewise, Gray converted nearly 75 percent of his field goal attempts, including three from over 40 yards.
“I think the margin of error in our region, and especially with us, is very small,” Raney said. “I thought what separated our margin of error last year was the outstanding kicking game.”
Although searching for a punter, the Jags appear to have at least one prospect capable of stepping into Gray’s cleats: junior Cole Starr, an athlete Raney recruited from the school’s soccer team. Starr looked crisp in spring practice, consistently hammering field goals through the uprights.
But it’s going to take more than strong special teams play for the Jags to replicate their prior success.
Playing in highly competitive 7A, Region 3, Spain Park will need its team members to demonstrate the same level of commitment and resolve as they did in 2015.
“I thought our team last year had the ‘it’ factor that a team needs to have…just a never say die, never quit, and that comes from great leadership from coaches and from kids,” Raney said. “If we can continue that, I think we’ve got the talent to have another successful year.”
In Raney’s conservative, run-first offense, the method is clear and simple: pound the ground until peppering in play-action passes.
As a result, the Jags have an annual demand for a corps of versatile running backs prepared to shoulder a heavy load.
In 2016, expect the majority of those duties to fall to senior Larry Wooden.
Selected All-State Honorable Mention in 2015, Wooden scored nine touchdowns and accumulated over 1,200 all-purpose yards during his breakout junior campaign.
“I think he’ll be one of the best kids in this area as far as being a college-recruited kid,” Raney said. “I think he can do a lot of things, and I think his work ethic has really improved since last year.”
In addition to toting the ball on handoffs, Wooden poses a dangerous receiving threat. With soft hands and elusiveness, he has the ability to make opposing defenses pay in open space.
He’ll be joined in the backfield by junior D’Arie Johnson, who is coming off a torrid junior varsity season. Raney said he envisions the Wooden-Johnson combo resembling the formidable one-two punch formed by Wooden and Wade Streeter in 2015.
Although he anticipates an extensive position battle, Raney will look to either senior Hunter Howell or junior Braxton Barker to take over quarterback duties. Howell gained small chunks of playing experience late in games last season when former gunslinger Joey Beatty had already padded Spain Park’s lead.
“He’s paid his dues in the program first, but we’re going to play the best player,” Raney said in reference to Howell. “I mean that’s the attitude at every position.”
Regardless of who surfaces as the starter, it’s going to take a group effort to protect him, as former offensive linemen Johnathan Mote and All-State center Grey Best will be hard to replace.
Senior Thomas Jordan will play at the No.1 receiver position.
On the opposite side of the ball, Spain Park’s defense will attempt to duplicate its audacious string of performances from 2015. Over the course of the season, the Jags pitched four shutouts and allowed only 58 points in their final nine games.
But a few key pieces have since graduated, including All-State linebacker Perry Young and defensive lineman Markell Clark.
“You think of Perry, since I’ve been here, he’s been the cornerstone of this defense, so to lose him is a huge loss just because he’s such an outstanding playmaker.”
Nevertheless, Raney said he believes he has guys ready to rise to the occasion.
In Young’s absence, seniors Houston Hollis and Josiah Johnson will anchor the linebacker corps, while fellow seniors Douglas Henze and Damon Wright will tether the defensive front.
With seniors Cameron Toyer, Jack Connell and Damarius Farmer returning, the Jags’ secondary—a question mark entering 2015—should be one of the team’s strong suits.
Schematically, Spain Park lines up in a 4-3 base package, though it is capable of switching to a 3-4 depending on the opponent. Despite requiring greater flexibility from players, the two-package system provides the team with an extra degree of versatility.
“Everybody’s just got to buy in,”Henze said. “It really just boils down to not singling any guys out. Everybody has to do what they’re asked to do.”
The Jags are searching for a punter, but junior Cole Starr is a candidate to step into the place-kicker role.