By Trey Williams
Science Hill eighth-year football coach Stacy Carter has compiled a 60-23 record with the Hilltoppers and his teams won at least nine games four straight seasons (2012-15) for the first time in program history.
His ‘Toppers have won six playoff games. The program had gone a decade without a postseason win prior to his arrival from Sullivan South.
Science Hill advanced to the quarterfinals in 2014 for the first time since 1994 and started 9-0 in 2012 for the first time since 1979. Success hasn’t been scarce under Carter, who’s helped mold some of the program’s all-time greats, including Malik McGue, Reed Hayes and Malcolm White. But coaches around the region say the best might be yet to come – and sooner rather than later.
The Hilltoppers open the 2017 season at home on Friday against a stout Elizabethton team with what could be Carter’s best roster to date. “I don’t know what everybody else has and we’ve got such a tough schedule and we’ve got some youth,” Carter said. “But looking at it on paper, this is one of the best teams we’ve ever had.”
Senior quarterback Jaylan Adams, who has offers from The Citadel and Austin Peay, now has the experience to match his athleticism. He rushed for 304 yards on 18 carries in a 56-35 win against Dobyns-Bennett last season.
“If you give him a seam he can take it to the house,” Carter said. “Jay throws it good and runs it good. And we’ve got some good receivers, too.”
Yes, receivers Aundre Butler and T.J. Patton help comprise a capable receiving corps, and pass-friendly Carter has done an exceptional job with quarterbacks since he was a Sullivan South. But with Science Hill’s massive offensive line leading the way for Adams and a deep stable of running backs you couldn’t blame him if he installed the wishbone offense.
Junior Ahmik Watterson headlines a talented quartet of running backs. Watterson tallied 1,052 yards on 125 carries as a sophomore (8.4 yards per carry). Junior Drew Morrison and sophomores Malik Bowman and Chris Thomas will cause opposing defensive coordinators acid indigestion, too.
“Every one of them brings something a little bit different,” Carter said. “Ahmik and Malik are ones that can take it the distance for us. Drew’s your big strong guy that can catch the ball very well out of the backfield, and can go and play tight end or H-back. He had some good catches the other day. And Chris is short and stocky like Emmitt Smith’s style. He runs low to the ground and has great vision.”
Of course, it shouldn’t be hard to spot a hole from behind this offensive line. Tackles Blake Austin (6-4, 283, Jr.) and Tre’ Stuart (6-4, 340, Sr.) are huge bookends complemented by the likes of Trey Gasteiger (6-3, 267, Sr.), Zach Colvin (6-0, 250, Sr.), Ryan Miles (5-10, 226, Jr.) and Stephen Grant (6-0, 276 Jr.).
“Our O-line coach, Andrew (Beck) thinks it’s the best offensive line he’s ever had,” Carter said. “And we’ve got about six or seven that can play.”
Elizabethton coach Shawn Witten was quick to note the Hilltoppers’ offensive line. “I would love to see anybody (in the state) that’s got a bigger line than Science Hill,” Witten said.
Bryson Tolley (Tennessee Tech) and Nakiya Smith (Eastern Kentucky) must be replaced on defense.
Kendrick Fain (6-3, 280, Sr.) is an interior force on a defensive line that includes Jesse Cross (6-2, 284, Sr.) on the interior and Denzel Medina and Jacob Abram on the edges.
They should make life easier for hard-hitting Arthur James and fellow linebackers Tristan McPeak (6-0, 178, Sr.), Josh Kota (6-0, 213, Sr.) and promising sophomore Matthew Levi (6-1, 194).
The secondary should have good depth behind Shane Austin, Patton, Butler and Ben Gregg (6-1, 170). Sophomore Kendle Williams is the great nephew of Langston High School legend Billy Gene Williams, who quarterbacked the Golden Tigers to a 134-0 win against Elizabethton Douglass in 1957 and went on to start at Dillard University in New Orleans as a freshman before entering the military.
Science Hill beat Elizabethton in double overtime last season thanks to 83- and 65-yard touchdown runs from Watterson, a blocked field goal by Avery Conkin and an exceptional game-winning left-handed catch by Tate Overbay, who’s now competing in track and field at East Tennessee State. It came on a pass from backup quarterback Jake Blankenship (Emory & Henry), who entered when Adams was knocked out of the game late in the first half on a hard hit to the chest from Alex Norwood.
The challenging comeback victory was a microcosm of what was Carter’s most trying season in Johnson City. Dissension and a dismissal helped water the fuel during a 3-3 start.
But Adams got healthy, found his stride and the ‘Toppers responded with five straight victories, a streak that was capped by the 21-point win against rival Dobyns-Bennett and a 48-0 first-round playoff win against Siegel.
“I guess the big thing we can take from it is I think this group learned a lot from all that experience,” Carter said. “There was just a lot of disunity that went on. And you know, when something like that happens – you can tell kids about it forever – but when something like that’s happened and kids in younger classes experience that, they want to fight to change it. … “And we had some good seniors in that class too … and it finished off a lot better. I was proud of the kids.”
Elizabethton, which features versatile junior athlete Corey Russell and senior defensive lineman Cameron Coleman, is coming off an 11-win season that ended with a tough 17-14 loss to Alcoa.
“I think they’ve got a good bunch,” said Carter, who almost invariably mentions his respect for Witten and Elizabethton defensive coordinator Stan Ogg. “Him and Stan both – they work at it hard and they’re good at what they do.”
Witten hasn’t beaten Science Hill as a coach. He was part of two wins in four seasons as a player, and produced TDs five different ways (pass, run, reception, punt return, interception return) as a senior during an Elizabethton win at Dave Rider Field in ’98.
“But Science Hill’s a different program right now,” Witten said. “Stacy’s an elite coach. … The kids are playing hard for him. He’s got the talent out. He’s got the Science Hill football program moving in the right direction.”
The Cyclones are part of a taxing non-conference schedule. The Hilltoppers also visit Ooltewah and host Greeneville and Daniel Boone, which is led by quarterback Noah Shelton, running back Charlie Cole and offensive lineman Bailey Presnell.
And while the Big East Conference lost Maryville and Bradley Central, Science Hill’s league picked up reigning 5A state champion Farragut and quarterfinalist Morristown West.
“Our schedule is tough,” Carter said. “But we should have a pretty good team. … I think we’re decent. We’ll see.”