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Where championships begin… Another large team at T.A. Dugger gunning for 2020 middle school title

BY IVAN SANDERS
STAR SPORTS EDITOR
ivan.sanders@elizabethton.com
Success breeds success – pure and simple.
When one looks at a successful high school sports program, all they have to do is look at the feeder program that is preparing the teams before they reach the high school level.
For most football players in the Elizabethton school system, that starts at a young age in the area’s youth program where coaches run basically the same formations and use the same terminology as what is used when they reach the high school level.
The next stop is T.A. Dugger Middle School where the school fields both a junior varsity and varsity program. Most sixth graders usually play the JV schedule with a mix of seventh graders and the varsity has a blend of both seventh and eighth graders.
When looking at the past teams that Elizabethton head coach Shawn Witten has had success with including last season’s state championship team, almost every one of those players whetted their teeth at the junior high level where they were winning conference titles before becoming high school athletes.
That trend continues today and just like the high school that has seen an increase in the number of players coming out for football where almost 90 players are on the Cyclone roster this season, the middle school has seen the same type of increase fielding a roster of 65 players this season which is almost heard of for a middle school program.
Most struggle to get enough to play 11 players on offense and 11 on defense.
What makes the Jr. Cyclone program so successful has been a great blend of coaches that have taught the players techniques, terminology, and basically acclimated the players to the same thing that the high school program does including off-season workouts.
Current head coach Brock Pittman is excited once again about the team being fielded in 2020 even with the state of the current pandemic.
“We graduated a good class last year – they are all up there at the high school now,” Pittman said. “We feel good about this year. We have a lot of linemen who are prepared.
“We have a lot of guys returning that started and got a lot of playing time last year at almost every position. The guys that didn’t start last year, they played an awful lot so we feel pretty confident about that.
“I would say that we are strongest in the line right now on both sides of the ball,” Pittman continued.”I know we lost a lot of guys but there are a lot of guys that are coming back with a lot of experience so we are just trying to build on that.”
Pittman, a former standout player in Virginia and former head coach of the Cloudland Highlander program, can’t do anything but smile when he talks about the Jr. Cyclone program.
He spoke about a trio of returning players that will play a key role for the 2020 season.
“Jeriah Griffin and Jeremiah Norris are two speed guys who can really run so we have to find a way to get them the football and defensively too as they will be on both sides of the ball,” stated Pittman.
“Rhett Slagle is going to work at quarterback and he is a really good runner too and on defense, he has been getting reps at corner and outside linebacker.”
The toughest part of working through the pandemic has been the fact that just like all teams, the lack of contact has held the Jr. Cyclones from filling out the center of the puzzle as they have only been able to work on the outside.
With the release to go back to work, Pittman and his coaching staff have been hard at finalizing where all the pieces fit correctly on the overall scheme of things.
“Defensively, we are just trying to find the right pieces for the right places. We have plenty of pieces to work with but we just have to find the right places to put them,” Pittman commented. “That is what we have been doing ever since we have been able to do a little bit more stuff on the field with the whole COVID and everything.
“We have really been looking at where are we going to put this guy and where are we going to put that guy where they will make us best defensively.
“Then offensively, guys like Jeriah and Jeremiah are both multi-talented players,” Pittman added “Jeriah is a guy that can play in the backfield and can go from first down when he is in the backfield and on second down he is wide receiver and on third down, he could be a slot and Jeremiah is the same way.
“And again with Rhett, he is a quarterback but he is a good runner too. I am really impressed with his ability to throw the football. He is really smart so he picks things up pretty quickly.”
Pittman is really excited about his lineman that makes up the 2020 Jr. Cyclone squad saying, “Upfront there is a lot of returning experience. It’s kind of like where Shawn (Witten) has five guys that all started, we don’t have all of our starters back but those guys got a lot of reps last year. We feel pretty comfortable upfront.
“We just have to do a good job coaching and hopefully, we will be as good as we can possibly be.”
Winning another conference title is going to be a challenge as all the teams that the Jr. Cyclones compete against are tough year in and year out. It won’t be any different this season either as the Jr. Cyclones will have four tough road games to deal with.
“We are on the road two weeks in a row to open the season – we are at Sevier and then we are at Liberty Bell, and we will have to play well on the road right off the bat,” Pittman noted. “That’s two tough road games and then we host Greeneville and then we are back on the road again for two weeks at Boone and at Crockett and both of those teams were really good last year.
“Then we are home against Robinson and then the Eighth Grade Night game is here at Citizens Bank Stadium against Vance and that was a really good game last year.
“We earned it last year for sure. We went 7-1 and then ended up tying for the conference championship because Crockett beat Greeneville which didn’t shock me because Crockett was really good last year,” Pittman continued.
“And then if we can, we are going to try to play a bowl game. We are going to call it a bowl game against Greeneville to get an extra game in.
We aren’t playing any non-conference games. We would like to but just can’t.”
Pittman was presented with the question surrounding what he considered to be the keys to success in 2020.
“The keys for success – there is like a million of them which one would you like to know about. We have to become a team just like last year. Last year we wanted to make sure that the team didn’t feed off the team from the previous year that group of now sophomores that were really good,” said Pittman.
“They have to make a name for themselves and it’s just like this team – we have to make a name for ourselves and we can’t feed off what happened last year.
“Last year, we won games because of pure toughness and just never-quit attitude. We have to bring that back this year. We were behind in a lot of games last year that we won. Our eighth graders need to do a really good job with leadership. That helped us out a lot last year too,” he continued.
“We have to do the little things right. Last year, we put ourselves in a position to win. We were always in a position to win in the fourth quarter and we were able to.
In eight-minute quarters, you have got to score, you have got to score, you have got to score because you run out of time real quick. Last year we scored on offense and played really well on defense after the first couple of weeks. We want to come out and be known as a good defensive team and let our offense do what its got to do.
“I really have a lot of confidence in our offense. The main key is going to be defensively and special teams.”
Pittman noted that with the number of players that are coming out, it has been a blessing to have a great staff that have come alongside him to make sure the athletes are receiving the right instruction.
Many of those coaches have high school experience from being a head coach to a coordinator at other programs and that experience helps to solidify the teams that are being put on the field at the middle school level.
“We have the best coaching staff in America at a middle school – I am just telling you,” Pittman stated emphatically. “They are good guys who love the game and love coaching. They want to learn like me and they are passionate and are into it. We are going to take advantage of that and coach the kids up. With the numbers we have, having that many coaches make it really important.”
“The kids have been awesome with the protocols we have had with the coronavirus. They have done great as our main goal has been to keep everyone safe.
“It’s been different but we have had to come up with different ways to coach,” Pittman reflected. “I think it has helped some with the coaching side of it. We have had to come up with unique ways of coaching techniques without making contact.
“So we have had to be creative with coming up with ways to run drills and Ryan (Witten) is really good with that kind of stuff especially without making any type of contact. The coaches have done a great job of adapting and being creative.”
2020 T.A. Dugger Football Schedule
9/3   – @ Sevier
9/10 – @ Liberty Bell
9/17 – Greeneville
9/24 – @ Boone
9/29 – @ Crockett
10/8 – Robinson
10/15 – Vance (8th Grade Night)
10/29 – @ Greeneville (Bowl Game… All proceeds will go to Isaiah House and Shriners)