HEAD COACH: Slade Calhoun (2nd season)
LAST YEAR: 7-4, lost to Clarksville in first round of 5A playoffs
RETURNING STARTERS: 7 offense, 7 defense
KEY RETURNING PLAYERS: RB Auvic White, QB Jordan Bell, OL Zach Smith, WR Ben Cerniglia, DB Icarius Hodgin, RB Jace Hodgin, DB Ben Cerniglia, RB Jeremiah Davis, WR Hunter Gill, WR Tristan Bohannon, OL Nathan Tuggle, OL Ethan Gullett, OL Christian Lott, LB Jake Bradley, LB D.J. Vassar
KEY PLAYERS LOST: QB Jaxon O’Neal, RB Traveon Hawkins, DB Kelton Mason, DB Jarra Dowell, LB Jacoby Miguel
Munford went undefeated in league play last season to win the Region 8-5A title.
However, because Memphis schools like Southwind, Ridgeway and Kirby did not play due to COVID concerns, undefeated was 1-0 with a tight win over rival Brighton.
Did that take any of the shine off a region title?
“Of course people talked last year and said we didn’t really win the region,” said senior linebacker Jake Bradley. “We just have to go out there and do what we did last year.”
“I don’t really know,” head coach Slade Calhoun said when asked if some people thought the region title was not legitimate. “We couldn’t help that those Memphis teams did not play. I think us beating teams like Dyer County, Northpoint and St. Benedict validated winning the region. Those teams were as good as our region opponents. We love going in there and knocking off (Memphis) city schools because nobody gives us a chance. That’s a testament to our program, learning the power of teamwork and working together to beat somebody. When we work together we can overcome a team that has one or two super-talented players because we know we can work past that.”
Unless circumstances change, Munford will get its change to knock off some of those city teams. Memphis Central (the league favorite), Southwind, Overton and Kingsbury are each in a revamped Region 8-5A.
Munford has some holes to fill, but there appears to be plenty of talent to make a run at another region title.
The most glaring loss to graduation is quarterback Jaxon O’Neal, who was the starter the last two years and racked up some impressive stats running and passing.
Taking his place will be sophomore Jordan Bell, who took just a handful of snaps last year as a freshman. He already has a Division I offer (Eastern Kentucky). At 6-2, 180, he’s an all-around athlete who Calhoun believes can get the job done.
“He’s improved his throwing and he’s more than capable as a runner,” Calhoun said. “We ask him to make a lot of RPO (run-pass option) reads and he’s improving every day.”
And then, of course, there’s senior running back Auvic White. The reigning Region 8-5A most valuable player and three-year starter rushed for more than 1,000 yards each of the last two seasons.
“He’s just a great kid,” Calhoun said. “He’s going to be our bell cow. We’re going to go as he goes.”
Bell feels like to have somebody like with whom to share a backfield.
“You know you have somebody who’s got your back, who’s ready at all times,” Bell said.
Senior Xavier Russell said, “He’s a team leader, a guy who will pick you up if you’r down. He’s just a great player to be around. He loves talking about God, but he can also run you over.”
“He’s a very humble guy,” said senior Ben Cernigila. “He always has goals and knows what he’s going to achieve. He’s going to get it done one way or another. There’s no way to stop him. He sets a tone for every situation, on the field or at school.”
That’s a very potent one-two combination, but White and Bell are far from the only talented players the Cougars are returning.
The defense took a big hit with the graduation of Kelton Mason, Jarra Dowell and Jacoby Miguel, all of whom were three-year starters. However, senior Icarius Hodgin is back and he’s a special player. Hodgin, last year’s Region 8-5A defensive player of the year and preseason all-stater, led Tennessee last year with seven interceptions. He also had 64 tackles and caught 10 passes for 201 yards.
“He’s an awesome guy, very humble,” Calhoun said. “We’re definitely excited to have him back.”
Senior Ben Cerniglia returns as a nickel back. A 4.0 student who is drawing interest from several DIII schools, Cerniglia is the leader on defense. He expects the defense to be strong this season.
“Knowing our assignments and making the right plays,” Cerniglia said, “that’s our focus.”
Jake Bradley and D.J. Vassar return after being all-region linebackers in 2020. Xavier Russell, Hunter Gill, Jace Hodgin, Jaelon Dowell and Clay Bridges are other players who are expected to make major contributions on the defensive side of the ball.
“I love the way we have come together as a group,” Russell said. “Nobody is selfish on this team.”
The offense has plenty of guys with experience as well.
Nathan Tuggle, Ethan Gullett and Christian Lott are back after logging some time in the trenches last season. Zach Smith missed last season with an injury. He was injured again in the preseason a couple of weeks ago, but Calhoun is hopeful he can find his way back to the field.
Both Hodgins, Jeremiah Davis, Hunter Gill, Tristan Bohannon, Cameron Agee, Will Garcia and Mason Madill are skill guys who are expected to contribute.
Munford has been a regular in the postseason of late, making the playoffs six of the past seasons. But it has been three years since the Cougars have won a postseason game. The last two years the team lost heartbreakers in the first round to Clarksville.
The players and coaches are optimistic the Cougars can get over that barrier this season.
“Everybody’s ready this year,” Bell said. “The energy his high.”
“I think we’re going to be good this year,” Bradley said. “Honestly, I think we’ll be better than we were last year.”
“This year’s hasn’t won a game yet,” Calhoun said. “You have to look at each season as its own. Our goal every year is to win the region title and take it from there.”