MILTON, Ga. — Milton’s 2018 season included several firsts for the program. The Eagles first region title in four years, their first win in the quarterfinals of the state playoffs, their first win in the semifinals and of course, the program’s first state championship.
Now, the 2019 squad becomes the first in program history to show the state that Milton’s 2018 title run was no fluke, and to prove the program will not be content with its accomplishments of a year ago.
“Early on this winter, I was worried that now that we have had success, is there going to be complacency,” head coach Adam Clack said. “But I have seen anything but that. They are maybe hungrier than ever to prove they do belong in the discussion of top programs, and that it’s not just about a couple of standout players on a team. What we won’t take from last season is that anything will be handed to us because of something we have done in the past.”
Though the Eagles lost a bevy of talent from its 2018 squad, a number of key pieces return.
Right guard and Clemson commit Paul Tchio will lead an offensive line that also returns center Anthony Minella and guard Alec Hutchinson.
Standout Zander Barnett will lead the defensive line after compiling 90 total tackles, 25 tackles-for-loss, 10 sacks, 24 quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in his 2018 junior year.
Joining Barnett on the Eagles defense are returning seniors Steven Michaels and Jack Rhodes.
Rhodes has made the switch from linebacker to safety, but Clack said he will still spend plenty of time in the box. Rhodes was second on the team last year with 97 total tackles. He also had 13 tackles-for-loss, forced three turnovers and blocked two kicks on special teams.
Clack said Michaels has stepped up his play in the offseason and will be the field general for the Eagles defense.
While Milton returns significant talent, much of this year’s squad enters 2019 with limited varsity playing experience.
That includes at quarterback, where Milton will be without the state’s Class 7A Offensive Player of the Year Jordan Yates, who is now at Georgia Tech.
With big shoes to fill, Clack said the starting job is up for competition between sophomore Devin Farrell and senior Jackson Weaver. Farrel is a dual-threat quarterback while Weaver is a more traditional pocket passer.
“It’s been a really good, healthy competition,” he said. “The challenge for us as coaches is to build an offense that can highlight both of their strengths without leaning too heavily on one skill set.”
Another backfield spot up for grabs is at running back where senior Ahmad Junearick and sophomore Jordan McDonald are sharing carries. Clack said Junearick has showed poise and ability and brings experience from the JV level, while McDonald has size that could give opposing defenses fits.
Milton’s receiving yardage will be by committee. Will Stax and Rhodes bring some experience and there are high hopes for tight end Jack Nickel.
“Jack has been killing it and really showing promise,” Clack said.
Though the defensive line will feature some new faces this season, Clack said the front could be the Eagles’ strong suit. Jose Rangel and Jonathan Pittman, who was a starter on the offensive line last season, will join Barnett, but Clack said there are around four to five other linemen who can make an impact.
A question mark is the team’s secondary. “Guys are competing every day, and every day we are rolling three or four corners and two to three safeties, so we are going to keep working on that process,” Clack said.
Milton’s new talent will be tested early by the Eagles’ schedule, which is perhaps the most intriguing in the state.
The Eagles open the season in the Corky Kell Classic against Buford before hosting rivals Alpharetta in the Labor Day weekend Freedom Bowl, the second year of the event. Two weeks later, Milton will become the first Georgia team to play in California when they travel to the Golden State to face JSerra Catholic.
“We want to test ourselves in different situations against some very talented teams, and it also gives the opportunity to experience unique things the kids will take with them for the rest of their lives,” Clack said.
The Eagles will then look to avenge close losses to rival Roswell and Parkview before making a run to become the first team in program history to repeat as region champs. And though each team will want to knock off the defending state champs, Clack said that is of no concern to the 2019 squad.
“Last year’s team was the champs, so if people are trying to beat the team from last year, that’s their cross to bear,” Clack said. “We are going to prepare to tackle the task at hand, not worry about last year or the things you can’t control. That’s just adding one more distraction.”
However, Clack does not discount the impact of the 2018 state title for the Milton program, and what it can mean for the Eagles this year.
“Hopefully it means we will have some confidence and the experience of being up and down before,” he said. “And we hope to create a formula that can be duplicated. We are going to be disciplined in preparation and work, make sure we eliminate the controllable mistakes, have a physical mindset and wear on other teams for 48 minutes.”