Repeating as a state champion can be harder than winning the first one. Not only is there a target on the backs of the defending champion, but in the case of the Hapeville Charter Hornets, they’ll try to repeat despite losing 25 seniors — 14 of which were starters.
That will be a tall task for the Hornets, who ended last season by beating Rabun County in the Class AA championship game for their first state title in the program’s history, which will enter its eighth season.
The Hornets’ title defense begins with spring practice, which will run from May 7-17 and end with a scrimmage against Mays at 8:15 p.m. on May 18 at Lakewood Stadium. Admission to the scrimmage is $5.
Perhaps no team in the state — regardless of classification — had a tougher road to a state title last year than the Hornets. Despite being a No. 1 seed, they played the final three rounds on the road after losing three consecutive GHSA coin tosses. That includes the championship game, which was postponed and moved from the neutral Mercedes-Benz Stadium site when weather wiped out the originally scheduled slate, forcing the Hornets to travel 120 miles to Rabun County.
Yet, as hard as 2017 was, the turnover could make their road to another championship even harder this season. That doesn’t matter to Winston Gordon, who’s coached the team since its inception in 2011.
“Our goal is to repeat,” Gordon said. “If it’s anything less than that, then I shouldn’t be coaching. We want to reach for the stars and shoot for the moon...We have high standards and for us, it’s the next man up. This is a game of injuries and attrition, so we model our program to deal with those situations.”
They’ll have to deal with losing a number of key players, most notably the four who will have signed with colleges to play at the next level, including quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams (Army), defensive back Christopher Smith (Georgia), defensive end Kingsley Enagbare (South Carolina) and linebacker Caleb Kelly (Stanford).
Gordon said spring practice will be used to discover the team’s new identity.
“When you lose 25 seniors who played significant time, and you lose your starting quarterback, you’re in a rebuilding phase,” he said. “That will start this spring with our approach. Last year, we were more of a passing team with the threat to run. This year, with our running back returning, we might be more of a running team, but you never know until you get on the field.”
Marcus Carroll, who will be a junior, is the returning running back who Gordon said will be one of the team’s leaders. He’ll be joined in the backfield by rising senior fullback Orlando Banks. Gordon is also optimistic about the offensive line, which will have three returning starters in Ty Carter and Dajon Upshur.
Stability on the line and in the run game will be vital for the new quarterback, who at this point will be rising junior Jeremy Stephens, though Stephens will be battling a rising freshman that Gordon wouldn’t name.
“Stephens is at the head of the pack and is going to be running with the (first team) going into spring,” Gordon said. “They’re going to battle it out to see where we are, and we’ll know coming out of spring what our depth chart will be heading into the fall.”
While there will be player turnover, the system Gordon has installed over nearly a decade is firmly entrenched, meaning the new blood will exhibit the same traits as the past teams which enjoyed success.
“It’s business as usual here at The Charter,” Gordon said. “We embrace the workman’s mentality and we’ll come into spring ready to work like always — working on fundamentals. It’s the same thing everyday. That’s who we are.”
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