CLAXTON — The football program has come a long way at Claxton, and it has no intentions of going back anytime soon.
Four years ago, Allen Cartwright arrived from Portal to take the helm of a Tiger squad that had gone just 4-25 from 2003-05. Since then, Cartwright has turned the ship around, coming within just one win of the GHSA state playoffs in each of the last two seasons.
Now, with his first class of freshman gone, Cartwright and the Tigers believe that there is no reason for the progress to slow.
“We’re very pleased with the steps we’ve taken,” said Cartwright. “I think that this is a team that expects to have success, but we also know that achieving that success takes a lot of hard work.”
If Claxton is to contend for a playoff spot out of a very deep Region 3-A, the offense – a power-rushing staple for the Tigers for the past three seasons – will have to change a bit.
All-region running back Jamalcolm Morgan has departed, as has the majority of a big and punishing offensive line.
One familiar face remains in quarterback Michael Peel. A junior this season, Peel begins his third year as the signal caller and will be counted on to provide veteran leadership to the transitioning offense.
“We’ve got holes to fill, but I like our commitment,” said Cartwright. “Losing Jamalcolm and some of the offensive line hurts, but we’ve got new guys waiting to take over. We’ll still run the ball, but we’ll be a much more balanced team this year.”
“I’m excited about throwing the ball a little more this year,” said Peel. “I think I can help us by throwing the ball, but it really doesn’t matter what I do as long as we’re winning. The biggest thing is to just get it going early on.”
The defense was also subject to key losses as four-year contributor Chris Bellamy is now gone after serving as a menacing presence at defensive end.
Consistency on the defensive side of the ball was an issue in 2009. The Tigers allowed a respectable 18.9 points per game, but allowed 25 or more points on five different occasions – including all four losses.
This season, newcomers will have to step up to rebuild the defensive front.
“We’re definitely thin at linebacker and defensive line,” said Cartwright. “But that’s not to say we don’t have talent. Jesse Yancey and Tevin McNeal are some guys who have contributed for a few years. We’ve got a lot of young talent to, but how fast we can grow remains to be seen.”
“We know we have some work to do, so we’re really getting after it,” said junior linebacker Shavez Mincey. “As someone who’s trying to be a leader, I’m trying to set a good example. We have some young guys trying to step up and take our spots. I want to encourage that and get everyone working hard.”
Aside from the wins and near misses in region play-in games, the biggest change for Claxton in previous years has been the overall attitude of the program.
Where there was once a 13-game losing streak, there are now expectations of winning seasons.
Where injuries once forced many Tigers to play both ways, the roster is now brimming with new players waiting for their chance to contribute.
“A lot of this year’s team has been in our program for a few years and knows what we’re all about,” said Cartwright. “Our junior class has never had a losing season and the younger guys are excited to be a part of the team.”
Claxton gets its first chance to see how the new players are coming along next Friday as the Tigers host region foe Wheeler County in a scrimmage.
From there, Claxton will have just one week before kicking off the regular season with a home date against Tattnall County August 27.
Mike Anthony can be reached at (912) 489-9404.