By Chris McCarthy
First-year coach Bart Sessions has one goal and one goal only for the 2017 Gadsden City High football team – win a state championship.
“That’s our only goal. This is Gadsden City, and we don’t coach or play in a game that we think we’re going to lose. I don’t say that arrogantly; that’s our mentality. I think that our kids share that mentality, which gives us an opportunity to be successful.”
The Titan are coming off a season that saw Gadsden City win six straight games and make it to the state semifinal round following a 1-5 start. It was the second time in three seasons that GCHS advanced to the state semifinals. Sessions is well aware that expectations will be high when the season starts on Aug. 25 at Spain Park.
“It was very impressive what Coach [Matt] Scott and his staff and his team accomplished last year. To be honest, at halftime against Hoover (the game was tied 10-10) it looked like they were going to the finals. So we’re very capable of playing for a state championship.”
Toward that end, Sessions believes that mental toughness and physical toughness go hand in hand.
“Our philosophy is a tough-love mentality. Our coaches love our players and the kids know that. We are very demanding coaches, but once kids these days know that you love them, they’ll run through a wall for you. When you’re on that second (practice) hour in the July and August heat and a coach is on your rear end, you better be mentally tough. You push them and push them and push them, and the games are easier than the practices.”
Sessions pointed out that strength and conditioning are key components of his football program.
“[Former Prattville High and Jacksonville State head coach and current UAB head coach] Bill Clark wouldn’t hire anyone who didn’t love the weight room. We’ll have a lead guy for that area, but at the end of the day, if you coach football at Gadsden City, you’re going to be a weight room guy, and that includes me. We’ll tell our kids that if we’re not stronger in Week 8 than we are at the start of the season, we’ll be in trouble.”
Sessions, whose overall record as head coach is 36-12, coached Tuscaloosa County last season. The Wildcats went 2-8. From 2011-13, however, Sessions went 34-5 at McGill-Toolen Catholic in Mobile. Under his tenure, the Yellow Jackets won two region titles, went 20-1 in region play and qualified for the Class 6A state playoffs all three years, including a berth in the state semifinals in 2013. Sessions was defensive coordinator at Spain Park from 2014-15, helping the Jaguars go 18-6 and finish as the Class 7A runners-up in 2015. Sessions also was a part of three state championships as an assistant coach – in 2010 at Daphne and 2007 and 2008 at Prattville.
The Titans once again will include potent weapons on offense. Halfback/receiver and Troy commitment Jaelyn Fleming finished with a combined 1,117 yards rushing and receiving along with 10 touchdowns. He was the team’s leading receiver with 19 catches. He also returned 13 punts for 145 yards. Senior Ryan Sparks is back under center. Sparks last season threw for 1,370 yards and 18 touchdowns. Sessions also mentioned seniors Jamontez Woods and Jahtzee Meadows as veterans returning to the backfield, as well as senior LaRay Mostella.
“We graduated a pretty good back [in Damon Williams], but other than that we pretty much returned our skill positions intact on offense,” said Sessions. “So we feel really good about the backfield.
Sparks has two other veteran targets at his disposal with seniors Jaylen Cole and Jamontavious Woods, who caught 19 and 15 passes last year, respectively. Ray Mostella will also be in the mix, along with Fleming.
Despite that every starter from last year’s offensive line graduated, Sessions feels that this is the most improved unit on the team with seniors Dylan Bell, Jahvaronze Dilliard, Micah Lett, D’Errick Curry and JaMarquis Conwell leading the way.
“We’re not going to look like the Division I bodies that we had last year, but that’s okay. We love this group of kids. They were out there all summer grinding and getting better every day. Those are the kind of kids that you can win with. We have about eight or nine guys that we think can get it done. We do have to stay healthy, which is always tough in 7A football.”
On the defensive side of the ball Sessions pointed to the linebacker unit as a strength with seniors Jakobe Griffin (65 tackles in 2016), Jabraun McNeal (46 tackles, four sacks), Tavian Dudley, Jacquez King and J.J. Graves.
The line features senior ends Eli Campbell, Donnie Ryan and Bronce Williams. Campbell recently committed to Georgia Southern.
Patrolling the secondary will be senior Sam Goldthreate and Calvin Williams at safety and three-year starter Ahmad Bell at cornerback.
The Titans are in good shape in special teams with senior Jonathan Kilgo. Last season, Kilgo was 8-for-10 in field goal attempts and 34 of 38 in extra points. He also averaged 38 yards per punt.
‘We think we have one of the best punter/kicker combos in the state with Jonathan,” said Sessions. “He can really hammer it kicking and get it 10 yards into the end zone, and in our opinion, he is a Division I-type punter.”
Senior Ghanem Alhajazin will resume his long-snapping duties. Sessions noted that Carlos Flores will also see action.
“That unit is going to be a major part of any success we have,” added Sessions. “If we don’t emphasize the kicking game even above the offense and defense, then we’ll have no opportunity in 7A football. Field position is crucial.”
Sessions also believes that his program devotes more time fine-tuning the special teams than the average team.
“We tell our kids that at some point [in a game], they’re going to need a break, and that it better be on either offense or defense. No one ever comes off special teams. Quite frankly, we’re going to put as much time into special teams as we have to. If that takes away from offense or defense, so be it.”
Along with Gadsden City, Region 4 includes Bob Jones, Buckhorn, Grissom, Hewitt-Trussville, Huntsville, James Clemens and Sparkman.
“We’ll know a lot about our team after the first three games, which are all on the road,” said Sessions. “That three really good football teams who are perennial contenders. We’ll find out what we’re were made of pretty quickly. If survive that stretch and come out of it without being too banged up, we have a chance to be a good football team.”
Sessions said that the Gadsden community has welcomed him and his family with open arms since his hiring back in early April.
“The people here are fantastic. It’s been very hectic for me and my wife, but we’ve moved here and are settling in. We’re getting out into the community and we’re excited to interact with folks in the area. I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a few events around town and meet with a few community stakeholders, and Gadsden City is a place that loves their high school football.”
2017 Football Preview: Gadsden City’s 2017 season now in session
By Chris McCarthy