SAND ROCK – Sand Rock’s 2020 football season was summed up by the last play the Wildcats lined up for last season.
They came up just short.
The Wildcats had rallied from a three-touchdown deficit against rival Cedar Bluff, scoring a touchdown with no time remaining to trail by a point. After a Tiger penalty before the game-tying extra point attempt, first-year Sand Rock head coach Alan Heath decided to go for two and the win. Then-freshman running back Jacob Cornejo was stopped just short of the goal line in a 28-27 loss.
“On paper, it was the right call. All we had to do was execute it,” Heath said of the season-ending play call. “It was there.”
It wasn’t the only thing that was there for the taking for the Wildcats in 2020. Three of their seven losses were by 13 points or less, including the one-point heartbreaker against Cedar Bluff. Two of their losses were by COVID forfeits.
A season of potential went unfulfilled.
“We look back at 3-7 and we don’t want to do that again,” senior lineman Bryan East said. “That game, it’s gotten in our heads that we’re not going to let that happen again. Every time we’re in the weight room, we always think about that. That one rep could be that one yard.”
“We had a lot of expectations for last season, and we didn’t meet those expectations,” senior receiver/defensive back Olin Pruitt added. “COVID slowed that down and we lost our motivation, but I feel like everybody is hungry this year. We want to put Sand Rock back on the map. We’re tired of being losers.”
Senior wide receiver/safety Tru Graham said the work for the 2021 season began immediately.
“We started right after the Cedar Bluff game,” he said. “It’s those little things. Circumstances do not determine outcome. We’ve just got to work harder. We can’t let a few bad plays put us down. I think that’s what really hurt us last year. We had a few bad plays and we let those determine the whole game. They would score and we would just kind of give up. We can’t do that this year. We know we can’t do that. We know if we give up we’ll lose. This year, that mentality is gone. It’s in the past.”
Graham said the Wildcats have “really progressed” since last season. And it shows physically. The Wildcats have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger since this time last year.
“We’ve really been pushing ourselves more than last year,” East said. “We were watching last year’s film against North Sand Mountain, and it looked awful. Last year we thought we looked good, but now it’s so much better.”
Heath said the Wildcats’ summer has been “awesome.”
“We had 24 summer workouts. I gave the kids the opportunity they could miss up to three. At least half of the kids, 7-12, didn’t miss any. A lot of the rest of them missed one, maybe two, but it wasn’t like they thought ‘I get three misses. I’m going to take three days off.’
“In the month of June, we went from 7-9 in the morning. In July, we started going four days a week. We went Monday through Thursday, and then we’d go from 7-10:30 or 11. They’ve been working hard.”
And the result of that hard work?
“When I first took over, I think I had two guys who could squat 315 pounds. Now I’ve got probably a dozen, which is about half of the team, who are squatting mid-400s,” Heath said. “They’ve just worked their tails off.”
It doesn’t hurt that Sand Rock returns a lot of players from last season either, including quarterback.
Junior Ace Ashley threw for over 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games last season. Heath said the Sand Rock signal caller has improved on his mechanics.
“I’m really expecting big things out of him,” Heath said. “I think it benefited Ace a lot as a sophomore to have all those reps. He did a great job last year. He stepped in and learned the offense, and he went to a lot of camps this summer. He’s a smart kid. He’s got a positive attitude. I think our ability to throw the ball around last year surprised some people, but my guess is they probably won’t be surprised this year.”
Freshman Carson Chesnut will be Ashley’s backup at quarterback.
Cornejo, now a sophomore, and junior Trace Haygood will line up in the Wildcat backfield. Cornejo is the Wildcat halfback while Haygood is the fullback.
“We’ve really been trying to work on improving our run game,” Heath said. “My whole career I’ve been a run-first guy, but we weren’t able to run the ball real well last year. Trace and Jacob, I’m real excited about.”
Ashley’s top targets at receiver are expected to be seniors Pruitt and Heath Driver, and junior Brian Giles, along with junior tight end Logan Crider.
Blocking for the Wildcat playmakers are seniors East, Carl Goodwin, Edwin Kinsey and Matthew Grimes, along with juniors Bradley Jackson and Hugh Moore. Those guys will also flip to the defensive line and will be joined by seniors Tommy Ledford and Jared Trammell.
The Wildcat linebackers include Crider, Cornejo, Driver, Giles and sophomore Eli Colley. Goodwin is also in the rotation.
Sand Rock’s secondary includes Graham, Pruitt, Haygood, Chesnut and freshman Everett Deboard.
Sand Rock plays the first three weeks of the 2021 season on the road (Pisgah on Aug. 27; Westbrook Christian on Sept. 3; Gaston on Sept. 10). The Wildcats’ first home game is scheduled for Sept. 17 against Southeastern. They compete in Class 2A, Region 6 against Spring Garden, Westbrook Christian, Cleveland, Southeastern, Locust Fork, West End of Walnut Grove and Gaston.
“There isn’t a bad team in it,” Heath said of the region. “Spring Garden, Westbrook and Cleveland, those three are the teams people expect to win the region, but we can be right there with them. I think we can surprise some people. I think we are a better football team.”