The Adairsville Tigers snared the attention of northwest Georgia pigskin followers a year ago when they took the Ridgeland Panthers to the mat before falling in the game's final minutes.
Friday night at 7:30 p.m., head coach Jim Kremer said, he expects the Panthers to be better prepared when the two high school football teams line up at Tiger Valley to square off for bragging rights in a non-region game that will kick off the seasons of the two squads.
One thing that hasn't changed is the fact that the Tigers, who finished 5-5 a year ago, want to walk off the field this week with a "W" and carrying the confidence that comes when a program earns its first signature win under a new coach.
"We had their backs to the wall [last year], but we couldn't pull it out in the fourth quarter," Kremer said.
The Tiger head coach said his team has played some quality teams tough the past two years but did not close the deal.
The coach said his Tigers have improved their play and are working to validate how much they've improved.
"We're fighting to get the respect I personally feel our kids deserve," he said. "We're not going to get that respect until we beat a formidable opponent like Ridgeland. Beat a team like Ridgeland and you're going to turn some heads."
The coach said when he was an assistant coach at Calhoun, the program's signature win was against Cartersville, which had ripped off 22 victories in a row at the time.
"It would help if we got it now," he said, "but we're not putting our whole season on the line. Still, it's a very important game for us. It's a non-region game that will tell us where we're at."
This year's Tigers, who play in Region 7A-AA, appear even more experienced than a year ago and that could make Friday night's game fun for spectators.
"This is our most experienced team," the third-year Tiger head coach said. "We've made it where we've got 22 different starters and not a lot who play two-ways, but we have some we'll be rolling, trying to keep them rested. We have some more experience this year. Some of our kids, really, have been starters since 10th grade."
He said they also have some players from last year's JV team, which went 5-1 in play, and the upshot is he feels he has a lot of players on the team who know how to win.
Those Tigers are fresh off a 22-16 scrimmage win against Cass High last week, with quarterbacks Cody Kremer and Andrew Ward earning the coach's praise for their work in a game that featured multiple players on the offensive side.
Austin Harris led rushers for Adairsville, with two carries for 76 yards and a touchdown, with Tristan Smith covering 42 yards on six plays and Mike Upshaw covering 30 yards on eight carries. Four Tiger receivers also made their presence known.
Kremer said he expects this year's Panthers will take the game more seriously than last year, when they were also debuting a turf field.
The Panthers don't appear as formidable on paper as a year ago, when they had "four or five Division 1 players," but there's no guarantee any difference will be noticeable.
"They were loaded last year," the Adairsville coach said, noting their players even went to SEC schools like Georgia and South Carolina.
The Panthers lost their quarterback and some other skill players to graduation, but Kremer expects the replacements will be more than adequate.
"They got a [new] quarterback out of, I believe, the Red Bank area, and he looks to be a good athlete and has the skills to run their Wing-T. They may be younger than last year but they have some good players. They have some skills guys at the corners and in their outside linebackers and running backs. They have No. 7, an excellent receiver who can take it 70 yards on you at any time. They have four or five players who probably will go both ways and they will try to give them some rest."
The Panthers have an experienced coaching staff and will be looking to continue their dominance in Region 7A-AAA, which they have now won three times in a row. Last year's team finished with a 9-2 overall record, 5-0 in their region, and defeated Allatoona 13-12 in the playoffs before closing out their year with an 18-12 loss to Woodward Academy. They defeated Dalton 21-0 in the regular season.
"Coach [Mark] Marlakis has been there a while," he said. "I think we surprised them last year. I don't think they will take us for granted, and this year they will be a little more prepared. I expect them to do a little better job preparing for us."
Kremer said while Ridgeland is a tough opponent, he feels those types of games early in the season can help a team.
"I felt like we could step up to the challenge and play with a really good team and still do," he said. "I think the better the competition you play early, if you can handle whatever's thrown your way, it will make you better."
One thing different about the Tigers this year is new offensive coordinator Doug Byerts, who once played for Kremer at Lake Brantley High in Florida, and who has been keeping things lively at Adairsville practices.
"Doug was a receiver," Kremer said. "I knew he wanted to be a coach back then. He's been a head coach at some private schools in Florida and I've been talking with him the last 20 years or so. He was ready to get his family to Georgia."
Kremer said Byerts has the characteristics he looks for in coaches.
"He's got passion. He's a high character coach who is a good fit for us," Kremer said. "He's going to do us a good job. I'm real excited about Doug being with us."
He said Byerts has a passion for the game and that translates well with youngsters.
"I think kids will respond to passionate people," he said. "If you're real, they definitely will respond. A lot of coaches know their X's and O's, but very few can motivate kids who have had problems in their lives. That's the real art of coaching. It takes passion and you have to care about the kids. I am always looking for coaches like that, and I feel I already have a lot of coaches like that at Adairsville."