FORT PAYNE – The Fort Payne Wildcats are hoping to start their 2019 season on a better note than they did a year ago.
The Wildcats kick off their regular season Friday at home against the Pell City Panthers, who Fort Payne lost to 21-17 on the road in last year’s opener.
Pell City finished 4-6 overall last season, but may have a better team than that record implies as they play in what is undoubtedly the best region in all of Class 6A. Their Region 6 division sent Gardendale, Oxford, Clay-Chalkville and Pinson Valley to the postseason last year. Those four teams went 11-3 in the playoffs last year and Pinson Valley was crowned as Class 6A state champs.
Pell City struggled against those playoff teams a year ago, but Fort Payne head coach Chris Elmore said the Panthers have plenty of talent coming back this year.
“It’s always hard in that first game, because you never know exactly what you’re going to see,” Elmore said Wednesday. “I know they’ve got a really good defensive end, Clayton Rich. He's at about 270 pounds and will probably be the biggest guy on the field. We’ll try to keep up with where he is on the field and adjust accordingly, but we’ll have our hands full with him.
“They’ve got a pretty big receiver No. 17 [Jarrod Posey]. He made a couple big plays for them last year and at 6-foot-3 or 6-4, he’s a good bit bigger than our corners. They have their quarterback [Mitchell Gossett] returning from last year and after we played them, I think he had a pretty good year.”
The Panthers have 20 seniors on this year’s roster and bring back the majority of their starting linemen from last season, which could be another hurdle for Fort Payne to overcome Friday.
“It’ll definitely be a challenge,” Elmore said. “Pell City traditionally has pretty big teams on the front lines. We’ll do our best to handle it, but I’m sure they will outweigh us on both lines. Hopefully our skill players can make the plays we need to give us a chance.”
That skill-position group will be led by junior quarterback J.D. Blalock, who Elmore has tabbed as the Wildcats’ starter for Friday’s bout. Elmore added that Matthew Shaddix will also see time behind center and that the duo could switch positions play to play.
With last year’s leading rusher, Donald Winchester, out with a torn ACL he suffered back in July, the Wildcats will look to give several of their skill players chances to run the ball against the Panthers. That group includes Shaddix, juniors Hunter Love and Darwin Camp, senior receiver Carter Pinholster and freshman Alex Akins.
The Wildcats will also look to finish this year’s opener stronger than they did last year.
Last season’s matchup saw the ‘Cats overcome a slow start offensively to take a 17-7 lead before Pell City bounced back with two quick scoring drives in the fourth quarter. Fort Payne then drove inside the Panthers’ 20-yard line in the final seconds, but couldn’t reach the end zone in time to pull a last-second victory.
“We just didn’t finish those last seven to eight minutes of the game last year,” Elmore said. “If we find ourselves in that same kind of situation this year, hopefully we show more maturity and finish strong.”
This year’s matchup kicks off Friday at 7 p.m. from Wildcat Stadium.