There were a lot of fans in the stands Aug. 17 for the season opener against Allatoona who wanted to see if the 2018 iteration of the Canes would hold up to the standard set by recent successful Cartersville teams.
With 20 starters and several standouts graduating from the year before, there was reasonable uncertainty.
However, even before a comfortable 35-0 win over Allatoona at Weinman Stadium to start the year, Cartersville head coach Joey King was confident in his team.
"I see these guys every day, so I know what they're capable of," he said.
Now, after passing the first test, Cartersville knows it has the team to pursue its yearly goals — a region championship and deep playoff run. From now until the meat of the region schedule, the challenge will be keeping the players focused on improvement and avoiding complacency.
"You have to be careful, because you come out and get a 35-point win, and then you go into a bye week, you can come out thinking that you've done something," King said. "So what did Nick Saban say? That stuff's rat poison. So we don't want to buy into the hype. So lot of people are saying, 'Great job. Great job.' But when you look at the film, it's not close to as clean as we need to be. We had a lot to work on."
Coming off a bye week, Cartersville will look to test its improvement Friday night at Weinman Stadium against Luella, which is trying to improve on a 1-9 season in 2017. Class 4A Luella dropped its first game this season, 16-0, to Class A Trinity Christian last week.
The Lions are coached by a former Cartersville defensive assistant and first-year head coach Jason Jackson. As a result, the Canes can expect to see a similar defense schematically to their own.
"That's why we scheduled the game," King said of Jackson coaching Luella. "I'm excited about seeing him and talking to him some this week. I'm sure he'll have his guys ready to go."
While Luella's track record suggests the Lions won't be much of a match for Cartersville, they do have a talented running back in 5-foot-11, 190-pound Dejon Conway. Conway will run out of Luella's pro-style offense with some spread mixed in.
"They have a really, really good running back — a Division-I running back," King said. "He returns kicks. He's a stud now. He runs with a chip on his shoulder. They give him a lot of touches."
The Canes will have to game plan for Conway, but the focus for the coaches in practice this week was on Cartersville, especially coming off a bye.
"It was good. We got a lot of kids a lot of reps," King said of the bye, adding it's a benefit to have early in the season with a young team. "With this group, as young as we are in some places, every day is critical.
"I'm happy with how hard we played [against Allatoona], but we're still not doing things mature teams do. A lot of intricacies of the game we have to continue to get better at. We have to be smarter football players and really do those little things right. I think it'll come. But as far as our effort and how hard our kids played, they're going to do that. That part is fun to see."
While some of the concerns personnel-wise seemed to have been answered, especially with regards to the offensive line and at the linebacker position, there is still one question that Cartersville didn't 100-percent put to bed in its season opener — how would the kicking game fare without all-state kicker/punter Jonathan Cruz?
It was mostly good in the opener, but a missed short field goal made the kicking game a point of emphasis during the bye.
"At times, I thought we did well in the kicking game. There were some times we didn't. We missed a 20-yard field goal. You're not supposed to miss those. So we really worked on special teams," King said. "I thought we covered kicks pretty well. We kicked some in the end zone, so we emphasized that. A little bit later in the game, we got a little bit tired defensively. We stayed on the field a bunch because we had some one-play drives, but we had a good week of conditioning. And then, offensively, doing those little bitty things, especially up front with our offensive line, that's kind of what we worked on."
Overall, King can't complain heading into the team's second game of the year Friday night. His team is healthy, is ranked No. 2 in Class 4A, and seems to be buying into the message of holding itself to a lofty standard despite its relative youth.
"I feel like a daddy with them. I'm super proud of them — of how hard they play and how much they love and care about each other," King said. "This group has a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. Everybody keeps asking, 'You guys supposed to be down? Isn't this supposed to be a down year?' Well, that's not going to enter these guys' brains.
"The standard is the standard. We want to have a championship culture here. We've been talking to them a little bit this week about standard over feelings. So here's our standard, regardless of whether it's hot or you're sore, regardless of how you feel that day, the standard doesn't change. So these guys have to buy into that, and they have."