Coaches rise and shine for annual east Cobb breakfast
by John Bednarowski
sportseditor@mdjonline.com
August 15, 2014 12:18 AM | 2981 views | 0 0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Pope coach Matt Kemper speaks during Thursday’s breakfast, as three of his east Cobb brethren, from left, Sprayberry’s Billy Shackelford, Wheeler’s Mike Collins and Lassiter’s Jep Irwin look on. 
<BR>Staff photo by Kelly J. Huff
Pope coach Matt Kemper speaks during Thursday’s breakfast, as three of his east Cobb brethren, from left, Sprayberry’s Billy Shackelford, Wheeler’s Mike Collins and Lassiter’s Jep Irwin look on.
Staff photo by Kelly J. Huff
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MARIETTA — Any time Pope football coach Matt Kemper can save on grocery money, it’s a good day.

Thursday was a good morning at the Kemper house, because 6-foot-4, 290-pound offensive lineman Max and 6-3, 220-pound tight end/running back Mike had an opportunity to join their father at the Cobb Chamber of Commerce’s annual East Cobb Area Council Pigskin Preview breakfast at Indian Hills Country Club.

“I was just glad to get up this morning and know someone else was feeding those two,” Matt Kemper said. “I opened the cabinet, and there was still a box of Captain Crunch, and I said, “Whew, that one lives to see another day.’”

The annual get-together gives the east Cobb coaches — Kemper, Kell’s Derek Cook, Lassiter’s Jep Irwin, Sprayberry’s Billy Shackelford, Walker’s Matt Casper, Walton’s Mo Dixon and Wheeler’s Mike Collins — a chance to share with members of the local business community a little insight into what can be expected from their teams this season — and offer a few laughs along the way.

“This is our seventh breakfast together,” Kemper said. “Normally, that’s 2½ coaches’ worth at Pope, so I’m honored to be here.”

Collins followed suit.

“This is my fifth year here,” he said. “That’s probably been three coaches at Wheeler.”

For the first time in four years, Pope is in the Georgia High School Association’s highest classification. The change means the Greyhounds have returned to the region schedules of Walton, Wheeler and Lassiter, and it’s something Irwin has been looking forward to.

“I’m glad Pope is back on the schedule,” he said. “We should have Pope on the schedule. I think we can see each other’s stadium lights we’re so close.”

Though no coach came out and said his team would win a state championship, there were generally two mindsets in the group — positive anticipation with an inexperienced group, or assuredness that their programs are on a definite upturn.

“We’re on a positive part of the ebb and flow,” said Shackelford, who also mentioned that Sprayberry has the first two All-Americans in the program’s 58-year history — kicker Rodrigo Blankenship, a U.S. Army All-American, and offensive lineman Bailey Sharp, an Auburn commitment who’s been named an Under Armour All-American.

“We struggled a little bit the last couple of years, because we had to play a bunch of young kids, but they have become more experienced.”

After taking a few large steps forward in his first three years at Wheeler, Collins’ Wildcats took a step back last season and finished 3-7. But his squad started offseason workouts over winter break, helping the team roll into spring football, and now Collins is ready to see the extra work pay off.

“With the exception of two games, all of our losses (last year) were by four points or less,” he said. “I’m very excited about the guys that are coming back.”

Kell doesn’t have a lot of experience coming back, but Cook said the team wasn’t going to use that as an excuse.

“We have high expectations for our young guys,” he said. “And we’ve found, when we have high expectations, people will rise to meet them.”

Dixon and Casper were each making their first appearance at the preview event.

Dixon said it was an honor to follow the path set by former Walton coaches Ed Dudley and Rocky Hidalgo, but he let the group know there may be a few different looks to his squad.

“We’re sprinkling in some of our own stuff,” he said, referring to some of the more pass-friendly offenses he’s worked with at North Gwinnett and Byrnes (S.C.), “but we’re going to be keeping the best of what Walton does (in running the football).”

Casper, who came to Walker from an assistant’s role at Lovett, got an idea of some of the east Cobb rivalries listening to the other coaches in the room. He said he wasn’t initially up on the Wolverines’ rivals, but as the season’s drawn near, many Walker supporters have given him ideas of the ones to focus on.

“I’m beginning to learn about Mount Paran Christian,” he said. “And I’ve heard about Whitefield (Academy), too.”
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