HIXSON, Tenn. (WRCB) -- One team was noticeably absent from the annual District 6-AA prep football media day Thursday afternoon at Hixson High, but opposing coaches didn't seem to mind.
Reigning champ East Hamilton is moving up to District 5-AAA this year after an unbeaten run through 6-AA a year ago, leaving behind a wide-open race for first.
"I know some other teams played them a bit closer than us, but they were just head and shoulders above us," said East Ridge head coach Tracy Malone. "Now that they're gone, I believe our district is extremely competitive. I think anyone can beat anyone on any given night."
Hixson beat everyone in the district except for East Hamilton a year ago, so the Wildcats were an easy choice as the preseason favorite in voting by both coaches and media.
Hixson won seven games for just the second time in the last 26 years in Jason Fitzgerald's first season with the program. Now he's interested to see how they handle wearing the bulls eye.
"I'd rather have the number one tag than the number seven tag each year," Fitzgerald said. "Now, what can you do with it? Are we mature enough now that we've won some games to work the way we need to work and prepare the way we need to prepare?"
The focus this offseason has not only been to get mentally tougher, but physically stronger, as well.
Returning quarterback Gil Brown will be complimented by a deep running backs corps, so Fitzgerald expects his team to keep its focus on the ground.
"To win championships you need to run the ball well and stop the run on defense," Fitzgerald said. "In our playoff loss to Notre Dame, they were just way more physical than us. We need to change that this year."
Wayne Turner though he might be preparing a farewell tour for his 24th season at Tyner.
The dean of area football coaches admitted being a little sluggish to start the offseason, but the energy of his returning roster has changed his outlook on another season on the sidelines.
"The kids come into my office all the time to plug in their phones and recharge those batteries. So far this year, they've done a good job of recharging my batteries," said Turner, whose team was picked to finish second by the media and third by the coaches. "At one point I thought I might be getting a little tired and a little slowed down, but they've been so enthusiastic that it has sparked a lot of fire in me."
John Allen hopes a new offense will spark a turnaround at Central.
Coaches picked the Purple Pounders to finish runner-up this fall, intrigued by the run-oriented coach's decision to switch to a spread offense.
"5-15 the last 2 years in the Wing-T just wasn't working very well," said Allen, whose roster now boasts 12 seniors and 27 juniors. "I fired myself as offensive coordinator and brought in someone who knows what they're doing. We have the athletes and we need to get the ball to them and let them make plays."
The offensive overhaul will head in the opposite direction at Red Bank, where spread guru E.K. Slaughter is planning to dial back the Lions' attack.
"I've taken a lot of risks in the past and I always want to go for the big play, but I need to do a better job of putting the game in our players hands and not be too greedy," he said. "We're still going to throw it, but we won't be 50-50. We'll be a little heavier on the run."
The reason for the change in philosophy is simple: Red Bank's strength will be on the interior lines.
"We've got some really good size and some really good athletes up front. We're going to lean on them. We'd be crazy not to," Slaughter said."
Much of East Ridge's offseason has been spent adjusting to a new 4-2-5 defense under new defensive coordinator Mark Teague, who joins the program from Marion, Ark.
Malone senses a different energy around his team entering his second year, in part because he's worked hard to help his players re-establish some pride in their work, their program and their community.
"If you notice on the back of our kids shirts is the hashtag 'BTM." That stands for 'Bigger than me'" Malone said. "We are trying to make our kinds understand that every decision they make affects East Ridge."
New coach Dr. Brian Gwyn is making that same uphill climb at Brainerd. The former University of Tennessee at Chattanooga player replaced Stanley Jackson, who was fired after last year's 1-9 record.
Numbers have long been a problem for the Panthers, who made the playoffs two years ago despite traveling just 22 players. This summer, Gwyn has between 45-50 regularly attending workouts.
"This program here has been suffering while other programs have been built with the kids that should be at our school," Gwyn said. "If we put a good product on the field, hopefully those who decided to leave because of what they heard will come back because of what they see."
Howard was the only team unable to attend the media day.
Practice starts July 23 for teams across Tennessee, with the first week of games scheduled for August 23.
District 6-AA Preseason Coaches Poll
4. Red Bank
5. East Ridge
District 6-AA Preseason Media Poll
3. Red Bank
4 (tie) Central
4 (tie) East Ridge