For the past two years, Heathwood Hall has not the enjoyed the success it was to which it was accustomed under legendary coach John Daye. The Highlanders won a total of five games in two seasons, but second-year coach Jon Wheeler likes the direction of his program.
When he came aboard, he had 19 players returning and was able to build that to 26 with the addition of several ninth-graders. He has 36 players on the roster this season — and that includes one freshman. The offseason workouts and spirit has been contagious.
“When we got here, we found that the kids were still hungry,” Wheeler said. “We got some kids out that hadn’t played football in several years and they have helped us recruit other players. We’ve been trying to rebuild the confidence of these kids that they can compete again in football.”
Wheeler welcomes back an experienced but young group. Junior quarterback Will Detwiler will begin his third season as the starter and he has improved each year. He has a strong, accurate arm and Wheeler expects him to be a better leader this season.
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The Highlanders also return 5-3, 140-pound running back Joe Thompson. The senior is one of the strongest players on the team despite his diminutive frame and will be counted on to get the bulk of the carries. But Wheeler had an air of excitement when he discussed the only freshman on the roster, Brandon Hill.
Hill will start at safety, where he has made an impact in scrimmages with an interception return for a touchdown and two caused fumbles. He also will serve as Thompson’s back-up and get his fair share of carries.
“Brandon is one of those special players that is just a natural,” Wheeler said. “I expect Joe to still get most of the carries but we’re going to let Brandon get some touches too because he is so explosive.”
The passing attack took a hit with the transfer of Shelton Whitaker to A.C. Flora. The big-play target averaged 20 yards per catch last year and had six receptions for 144 yards in the Falcons’ season opener on Friday.
Incoming transfer Nelson Weston will be counted on to pick up the slack.
The offensive line will be anchored by tackles Gabe Brandner and Chase Ryan. Brandner, a 6-6, 250-pound senior, had offers from several schools and committed to Duke this summer. Both he and Ryan will be counted on to fill the gaps on both sides of the ball. Offensively, Wheeler expects to run the ball more this season and the line will be key to how successful that becomes.
Shelton Blue and John Louis-Orlandini are returning starters at the linebacker spots and Wheeler is looking at a number of combinations to fill the third linebacker position. Edwin Propst and Logan McGill bring experience to the secondary.
“We have some guys that have played before but they just haven’t experienced that much success yet,” Wheeler said. “We’re going to compete. I want to see us play with confidence and without fear this year.”
The schedule is always daunting playing in the competitive Class 3A SCISA ranks. Add to the mix a date with Class A SCHSL state champion Christ Church in the opening week Friday and the Highlanders will be tested from the beginning.
“A lot of people don’t understand the excellent coaching and players we have in SCISA,” Wheeler said. “(Erik) Kimrey at Hammond has set the standard but it’s getting better and better every year. We have our work cut out for us but, hopefully, we can get a few breaks to go our way and we turn this thing back around.”