FORT PAYNE — Crossville had four seniors on last year’s team, a small senior group for any varsity football team, especially a Class 5A team.
The team returns 17 seniors who made major contributions last season. The large veteran cast has third-year coach Dusty Darnell hoping the Lions can make the most of the largest collection of depth they’ve had in his tenure with the school.
“(Lineman) is where we have gained the most depth heading into the fall, if we can stay healthy,” the coach said.
Both offensive and defensive lines are returning starters with experience in working in Crossville’s system. Seniors Alfonzo Lopez, Chris Lopez and Ben Fountaine are back to anchor the front line on both sides of the ball. Sophomore Treivan Bennett returns at center.
The Lions have senior Harley Hicks coming back at tight end with seniors Colton Adkins and Trace Allen back as wide receiver options for senior quarterback Hunter Haston. Senior fullback Ernesto Lopez will provide additional support in the run-oriented offense.
“We’re a spread team that wants to run the ball first,” Darnell said. “Our goal on offense is to be a physical team that will control the line of scrimmage. We took steps last year at becoming a more physical team.”
As Crossville looks to add to its physical goals, it will have plenty of returning defensive players to set the tone early this season.
Senior Gary Helfin joins Fountaine, Chris Lopez and Alfonzo Lopez on the D-line. Hicks, Haston and Ernesto Lopez are back as the Lions’ starting linebacker trio. The secondary includes senior cornerbacks Alex Chacon and Allen with Adkins at safety.
Crossville had its struggles last season, finishing 2-8 overall and 1-5 in 5A, Region 6 competition, missing the postseason for a second straight year.
The AHSAA’s 2020 reclassification moves the Lions from 5A’s Region 6 to Region 7, placing them in the same division as Boaz, Douglas, Fairview, Guntersville, Sardis and West Point.
With the region realignment out of Crossville’s control, so too have been the decisions for how to navigate the beginning of the fall sports season amid the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. AHSAA executives met last week and said the fall season will start on schedule, releasing a return-to-play plan with safe practices for school districts to employ.
“To play a full season would mean a lot for me because of the seniors; this is the last football season most of my guys will ever play,” Darnell said. “I still have many more seasons to coach.
“To be able to play a full schedule and get back to some normalcy is important to us all. I’ve always preached to my [players] you better play each play and game like it could be your last. Last spring proved to us all it can end sooner than we think.”
Darnell has been encouraged by the work ethic of his players amid the unusual circumstances this summer.
“Been a different summer for sure,” he said. “We have made the best out of summer workouts. I’ve been really proud of this group of core guys that have clocked in every day and gone to work.
“...A lot of my guys work real jobs. Our 5 a.m. group ended up being our biggest group. Those guys would show up early, work hard and go work a job.”
The Lions open their season with a home contest against New Hope on Saturday, Aug. 22.