JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Johns Creek head coach Matt Helmerich was approached by a fellow teacher who gave him his take on the program following the 2018 season. He told Helmerich that he watched Johns Creek football hope to win for years, but in the 2018 squad, he saw an expectation to win.
The anticipation for success was bolstered by the Gladiators’ 9-2 overall record and Region 7-AAAAAA championship last year, but Helmerich said the team is eager for more.
“Hungry is the best word to describe this team,” he said. “They have put last year behind them, and they want to take that next step which is get some playoff wins under their belt. This is the 10th season of Johns Creek football we still haven’t won a playoff game. This team is hungry to take that next step.”
However, Helmerich and his returning players know it is no easy task to reach the playoffs in the gauntlet of 7-AAAAAA play.
“It won’t be easy to repeat,” he said. “I think there is a lot of parity in this region. I was asked the other day who I think will be the four playoff teams, and I have no idea. You are going to get everybody’s best week in and week out.”
Leading the charge will be a host of new talent that includes a new starting quarterback for the first in several seasons after four-year starter Zach Gibson graduated.
Helmerich said the spot is still up for competition between junior Quinn Teeples and senior Ben Whitlock, who transferred from Denmark High School ahead of this season. Whitlock’s 2,713 passing yards put him in the top-five in the state in all classifications. He also threw 26 touchdowns.
Whichever quarterback gets the nod will have a talented core of receivers at his disposal. Dalton Pearson, who was second on the team in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns last year, returns along with fellow starter Yong Min Lee.
Dontrelle Robinson and Virginia transfer Justin Campbell, both 6-foot-4, will provide height on the edge. Helmerich said Garrett Gauthreaux will serve as a speedy target.
The Gladiators will be ripe with running back options with Dylan Parr, Tank Pritchett, Will Watson and Matt Geuss sharing carries.
“All of them have really good experience and have shown they can carry the ball,” Helmerich said.
Trey Sentell returns at center to lead the offensive line, which Helmerich said will be relatively inexperienced and undersized.
“Because we are undersized our offense will rely on team speed,” he said. “We’ll have to see how the offense comes together, but they have a chance to be really good, and we return a lot of weapons.”
On defense, linebacker Jon Ross Maye returns for his senior campaign after leading all of 7-AAAAAA players in tackles last season while adding four sacks, an interception and forced fumble.
“He is our unquestioned leader,” Helmerich said. “He’s also our juice guy, keeps guys up and going and keeps everybody focused.”
Other returners include three-year starting cornerback Patrick Taylor, safety John Stegenga and junior lineman Cole Nelson.
The remainder of the defense saw significant playing time last season or with the JV squad.
“We’re going to do what we do defensively, and that is fly around and throw in a bunch of different schemes,” he said.
Junior kicker Josh Huiett has made positive strides in the offseason and will handle kicking duties, Helmerich said.
For the second straight year, Johns Creek will take a trip out of state in its non-region schedule. The Gladiators will travel to South Carolina’s Fairfield Central to open the regular season Aug. 23. A week later, the team will welcome Jones High School of Florida to The Coliseum.
“It’s going to be a good bonding trip to South Carolina, and hopefully we’ll come out with a win,” Helmerich said. “And Orlando Jones might be the most talented teams we face all year.”
The experience of playing talented out-of-state opponents could prove beneficial in the region run, where Johns Creek will look to repeat as champs and look to earn the program’s first playoff win.
“I think Class 6A is wide open,” Helmerich said. “If we get better each week, take care of business in our region schedule, I think we have a chance to make some noise in the playoffs.”