Coach: Scott Rider
2006 record: 5-6, 4-3
Offensive starters back: 8
Defensive starters back: 8
CHURCH HILL — If finishing third in the Five Rivers Conference race behind perennial powers Morristown West and Morristown East didn’t stir interest in Volunteer’s program, nothing else would.
The Falcons regrouped to win five of their last six regular-season games after starting out the 2006 season 0-4.
Player participation has risen sharply and Volunteer is being mentioned as one of the outside contenders for the conference championship and another regional playoff berth this year.
“That was important for us to overcome a slow start,” coach Scott Rider said. “The players never quit working. To make it to the playoffs with a relatively young team gave us a boost to build the program.
“The players got a taste of it. People in Church Hill haven’t had a whole lot to get excited about athletically. Because we were able to create a lot of excitement, expectations are a little higher than in years past. We play in a very difficult conference and to be one of the top four teams says something.”
Volunteer returns eight starters on offense and the same number on defense.
The top skill performers back are quarterback Keith Cradic, who played on the varsity as a freshman and was a starter the past two years, and tailback Shane Barlow.
The defense will be anchored by hard-hitting linebacker Jordan Sandidge, who’s showing promise as a college prospect. He was credited with more than 100 tackles, which led the team.
Three linebackers, three down linemen and two defensive backs return.
Other defensive starters returning are Travis Russell and Robbie Clemons at linebacker, Cradic and Chris Ward in the secondary and Javian Shivers, Cody Ball and Wes Carpenter on the line. Carpenter has a broken collarbone and will not play for several games.
Returning on offense with the fleet-footed Cradic — who threw for more than 1,000 yards last year — and Barlow — a 1,000-yard rusher in 2006 — will be Sandidge at tackle, Josh Hensley at center, Daniel Buckley at guard and Aaron Bennett and Ethan Mays at wide receivers. Carpenter could be counted on for fullback duty later in the season.
“We made a commitment two years ago to play sophomores,” Rider said. “We hope that invesment is going to start paying off.
“We don’t think we’ve arrived yet. Things are a lot better than last year but we’re a sprained ankle away from not being very good. First and foremost, we’re going to have to stay healthy.”
Having Rider on board seems like the perfect marriage.
A former player at Elizabethton and Virginia Tech, Rider is from a well-known Northeast Tennessee football family. His father, Dave Rider, was Elizabethton’s longtime head coach. His nephew, Jason Witten — a former University of Tennessee player — is the Dallas Cowboys’ star tight end. Two nephews are in coaching. Shawn Witten, who played at Virginia Tech, recently was appointed Elizabethton’s new coach. Ryan Witten assists Rider at Volunteer.
Even though Volunteer’s win-loss records have never been as impressive as its fans would like, there is still hope the program will return the community to that former glory it enjoyed at Church Hill before consolidation.