Prediction: Shelby County ready to rebound into playoff contention

Published 8:53 am Friday, August 11, 2023

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

Shelby County may have had a down year last season, but things are looking up in coach Zeb Ellison’s third season at the helm of the Wildcats.

After back-to-back playoff appearances in 2020 and 2021, the Wildcats missed the playoffs last year after injuries wreaked havoc across the roster and the offense struggled to find their footing in a transitional year.

Now, Shelby County has grown better and stronger because of what they learned last season. The Wildcats are nearly back to being fully healthy and their young core that was forced to develop in the spotlight last year is improved after gaining game experience last season and taking advantage of a full offseason to develop.

That includes the offense and quarterback Ryan Sipes, who started last year as a freshman but has taken great leaps over the offseason. Part of that is thanks to new offensive coordinator Chris Bell, who has formed a great relationship with Sipes and has helped his development on and off the field.

Ellison said that Sipes is now much more used to the change in pace that varsity football brings, and he is able to slow down and understand the offense more because of it. Expect Sipes to step up in his second year as a starter.

Behind him will be third-year starter Bradley Horton at running back, who excels both in the backfield and at linebacker, but especially shines in Ellison’s run-first offense. His work ethic has made him a locker room leader, and he has stepped up this offseason and formed a better relationship with his offensive line, which has led to more trust and better communication.

Another great relationship that Horton has is with his partner in the backfield, sophomore Devin Alexander. Horton said that Alexander was a great complement to him last year and that he is even better than he was last year. Ellison and the coaching staff are excited about Alexander’s potential as the running back of the future, but today, they’ll be able to take advantage of having both players in the backfield this season.

As for the passing game, Ellison is excited for the group of receivers they have coming back, especially Dominic Woods. Woods converted from the defensive line last year, which inherently bring a big size advantage, but the six-foot-one, 210-pound sophomore can also jump very well to make himself an even bigger threat. Terence Copeland is a do-it-all receiver who can not only get open well, but make exciting plays once he gets the ball as well. Look out for Ethan Hall to be another target to watch this year.

The offensive line will protect all of them this year, and they are led by exciting juniors JayLourn Kelow and Ethan Burnette as well as sophomore Miles Burnette. They are a solid core that Ellison is excited to build around for the future and utilize today to elevate the offense.

On defense, the Wildcats have key senior leaders around players looking to make an impact after returning from injury. Keith Castleberry will anchor the defensive line as one of the most bought in players on the entire roster, Horton returns at linebacker after leading the county with 26 tackles for loss, Micah Swain is back as one of the biggest leaders on the team.

Among the Wildcats returning from injury are Lucas Wright, Jackson Thompson and Hunter Brown, who should all be impact players this season now that they are healthy.

Just like the offense, the defense also has promising young players. Cooper Pennington will likely continue his rise as one of the most exciting players in the county at inside linebacker, and sophomore Eli Carlisle will be used across the line at both nose guard and defensive end.

Swain is excited about the young players coming up who are bringing a new energy and sense of competition to the team, as well as speed that will complement an already athletic and versatile unit that includes Cade Joiner and Eli Holliman.

The Wildcats should be exciting to watch this year as their young talent develops into a team that could contend for the 5A playoffs for years to come while the seniors lead the way both on and off the field for Shelby County.

Prediction: 6-4. There isn’t much that suggests that last season was anything other than a blip in Shelby County’s continued rise in the 5A ranks. It was a transitional year on offense, and both units had arguably the worst injury luck anybody could ask for. That’s in the past now, and Shelby County has emerged a better, closer and more driven team with a lot of talent behind it. They have a unique opportunity within their region to grab more wins with many teams going through changes. Sipes will have to continue growing as a quarterback and the offense will need to generate more points this year after finishing dead last in the area in points per game last season, but the signs of improvement are there from the offseason that they’ll come along. There will be a lot of defense-driven games in 2023, but I think those will be the Wildcats’ strong suit and they’ll use those to get back on track and over .500, if not to the playoffs.