Prediction: Pelham ready to contend for regional glory and another playoff run

Published 4:55 pm Friday, August 11, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

PELHAM This time last year, there was a lot of uncertainty going into Mike Vickery’s first season as the head coach of the Pelham Panthers.

Would Pelham change or stay the same from 2021? Would they continue their rise through the Class 6A ranks?

Pelham answered those questions and more with a resounding second place finish in the region and their first playoff win since 2006.

Now, the Panthers are ready to keep moving forward on their journey to become a consistent team in the 6A playoffs.

Vickery said at media day that they are a lot more comfortable than they were going into last season because they’ve had time to establish their system, know what questions they have to answer and have the time to answer them.

One of those questions won’t be at quarterback, as Pelham answered that one last season when Vickery chose Clayton Mains to become the starter. Mains performed well in his first season, especially given that he didn’t know he was going to be the starter, but now that he does, he has been able to work on his decision-making and accuracy to complement the dual-threat skills that Pelham fans saw last season.

Mains is excited for the group of receivers that he has at his disposal this year, including Brock Isbell, CJ Tolbert, Jacob Gibbs and Marcus Arnold. Isbell was a solid receiver last year when he was on the field and Tolbert is a promising transfer who has had a phenomenal offseason, but if Pelham’s receiving corps is truly going to succeed this year, they will need big plays from underclassmen like Gibbs and Arnold since Pelham lost their top five receivers last year.

At running back, Mike Grayson and Kaleb Porter will replace Ra-Sen Martin. Both backs are physical and have gained good experience in the past, but now, they will step into the spotlight and try to get the tough yards between the tackles.

Both will be helped by a solid offensive line led by Tyler Mason and Cash Tatum. They are the lone veteran starters on the line, but Vickery is excited by Vance Barker, Rylan Hoyett and Prince Maye and what they will bring to the unit in their first season.

On the flip side, the defensive line is one of the most experienced groups of any on the Panthers. Their three-man front will feature seniors at every position with Brody Martin, Gerardo Lopez and James Schmucker. They have exciting underclassman depth behind them that the three seniors will help to grow and mature before they take the reins next year.

Will Felton and Bishop Rellah will lead the defense once again from the linebacker spot, and the seniors have been working hard to improve ahead of their senior seasons, and that hard work has manifested in FBS commitments for each of them. Even though Rellah will be at Navy next year and Felton will play for South Alabama, both of them said that they are as bought in as ever to succeeding this year.

Felton sees great potential in all of the skill groups on defense and is excited to see how they develop this year. As for Rellah, he believes that the team chemistry is at an all-time high as the team is coming together on and off the field and new leaders are stepping up that will take the mantle once he and the other seniors graduate.

As for the secondary, Kesean Griffin is the lone returning player, but he is versatile enough to bounce around between cornerback and safety. Around him will be exciting junior Javian Gee, track star Marshall Watts and Will McGough, who has missed the last two years because of injury but is ready to make an impact.

All four of the secondary players are poised for strong seasons, and this could be an underrated group going into the season.

Pelham even has talent on special teams, where Jake Garner is garnering college attention for his skills at kicker, punter and placekicker. He will be a key piece for Pelham this year for when they get in tricky situations.

Overall, it’s a solid and talented group for Pelham once again, which they will need because, as Vickery pointed out, everyone in the region is solid and talented from top to bottom and no one holds a big advantage over the other. He knows that they will have to match schemes to be close in games.

Prediction: 7-3. There’s no reason to predict anything other than another solid season for the Panthers. They should improve on their record from last year mainly because many of the other teams in 6A Region 3 still have a lot of questions to answer. Pelham is bringing back talented players in many important positions, with the receivers group the only big question mark. The fact that they already have an established number one man in CJ Tolbert will help Mains have a go-to option, while the more recent additions at receiver develop. They also have the defensive playmakers to cause problems against not just developing offenses, but established ones as well, like fans saw last year. Expect a fourth straight playoff appearance for the Panthers and another step toward even greater success in the future.