By TIM GAYLE
Special to the Elmore/Autauga News
William Whitlow isn’t playing around. That could spell trouble for Stanhope Elmore opponents this fall.
“The attitude is different,” the Mustangs’ senior defensive end said. “Last year, we were kind of playful in a sense, laughing and joking around at practice. Now, everyone is locked in. We know what it’s like to be ahead in the game and blow it and we hate that feeling. We’re going to do everything we can not to get in that position ever again.”
Whitlow was referring to the devastating second-round playoff loss to Park Crossing, one of only three losses for the Mustangs last season. All three 2019 losses were painful – a brutal 42-0 thrashing to Prattville in the second week of the season, a loss to Opelika in a battle for the region championship and the season-ender to the Thunderbirds.
“I guess the one that hurts the most is probably the last one,” Stanhope Elmore coach Brian Bradford said. “Because I think the first one did us a whole lot of good. We were a very young team last year and the first game we played was against Chilton County. It was pouring rain and we didn’t kick until 10:30, 10:45, more like a scrimmage game than a real game.
“Then when we go into Prattville, a lot of our guys were wide-eyed and shell-shocked, not used to the big environment and we got our eyes beat in. It wasn’t fun, I hated every minute of it, but what it did do is help some of the young guys grow up a little bit and helped us learn who we were as a team.”
The Mustangs still have to find a quarterback, but there are plenty of weapons returning on offense, including tailback Antinio Trone, linemen Alex Brahas, Jacon Reeves, Joel Hughes and Gary Hood, tight end Chase Eddings and tailbacks DJ McGhee, Jackson Thomas and Teddy Harris, with Harris returning to the Mustangs after a year at Autauga Academy.
But it is defense where so many Stanhope Elmore High teams have established their brand over the years and where the 2020 squad can make its mark. Across the front is experienced talent, including Whitlow, fellow seniors Kaleb Stokes and Justin Motley and junior Caleb Foster, senior linebackers Martin Toby and Carter Harrison and junior Fred Bass and a pair of senior returners in the secondary, Azlan Williams and Jacori Williams.
“I feel like our defense will be better than last year’s,” Whitlow said. “Last year, we weren’t really coming together as one team on defense. This year, we’ve had a year together. The bond is even stronger now. We’re going to be 10 times better.”
The Mustangs’ region has changed somewhat, with Pelham, Calera, Chilton County and Helena joining Benjamin Russell and Wetumpka. After three years of building his team from 5-5 to 6-4 to 8-2 in the regular season, Stanhope Elmore has emerged as a favorite to win the region championship.
“It’s a different mindset for us,” Bradford observed. “We’re not the team that’s going to surprise people this year. We’ve got to make sure that we do what we can do to be ready for everybody. Now we have our brand established – we’re going to play good defense, we’re going to play physical defense, we’re going to run the football.”
That may be enough for Stanhope Elmore High, which has never won a region title as a 6A program and only once advanced past the second round, to make a serious run in the state playoffs.
“The expectation for our class is to take us farther than we’ve ever been,” Whitlow said. “We know we have the firepower to do it. Last year is last year and we can’t help the past, it’s gone. We have to focus on the future and be the best team we can be.”