KICKOFF 2011: Up against the wall

Bainbridge head football coach Ed Pilcher, who is entering his 40th overall season as a coach, is ready to atone for last year’s 3-7 record, and that quest begins Friday night when the Bearcats host Early County in their 2011 season opener. (Photo by joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

Bainbridge head football coach Ed Pilcher, who is entering his 40th overall season as a coach, is ready to atone for last year’s 3-7 record, and that quest begins Friday night when the Bearcats host Early County in their 2011 season opener. (Photo by joe.bellacomo@albanyherald.com)

BAINBRIDGE -- There's no truth to the rumor that Bainbridge coach Ed Pilcher gets up every morning and rushes to school early just to make sure no one else is missing.

But Pilcher must feel like that at times. Not only did his cupboard take a hit, but a couple of the cooks in the kitchen are gone as well.

Not only did Division I quarterback prospect Steven Bench leave the program, he waited until after spring practice to make the move to nearby Cairo -- Bainbridge's biggest rival. And Bench's father, who was the Bearcats' offensive line coach, went with his son to become an assistant for the Syrupmakers.

But it doesn't end there.

Bainbridge also lost its defensive coordinator to budget cuts, which means the Bearcats may be the only team in the state with holes in their depth chart at two coaching spots.

And if that wasn't enough, Cam McDonald, a talented junior who would have started both at cornerback and receiver, dislocated his ankle and will be out eight weeks.

"We've hit the crunch,'' Pilcher said. "We lost two coaches that we can't replace because of the cutbacks. Everyone needs to roll up their sleeves and do a little extra -- both the coaches and the players.''

Pilcher, who has been coaching for four decades, has never had his sleeves down, and even though his program has been hit hard, he's ready for another season and hopefully a run at the playoffs.

"I'm in my 40th year,'' Pilcher said. "And I feel like I've got my battery charged all over again.''

He likes this team, and loves the way these kids get after it in practice. Bainbridge returns only a handful of starters, and Pilcher has been more than pleased at the way the open competition has driven his kids.

"I think I enjoy practice more now than even the games,'' Pilcher said."These kids really compete in practice.''

Pilcher didn't need to give a pep talk or huddle his team together after Bench left.

"Not a word was said. They knew the deal,'' Pilcher said. "I didn't talk about it.''

It's not Pilcher's favorite subject.

"It's a tough situation,'' he said of the Bench exodus. "I know one thing: Our kids are excited that Quincy Fortner is there playing quarterback. Our team chemistry is the best I've seen since I've been here. A little adversity brings you together.''

Fortner, a senior, played receiver and cornerback last year and also returned punts. He was the backup quarterback a year ago, and Pilcher had some packages for him before he moved Fortner into the starting role this summer.

"He's an athlete,'' Pilcher said. "He has played a little bit at quarterback. He knows what's going on. He just hasn't been under fire yet. He hasn't taken any real snaps until this season. Now that he's the guy, he's doing a good job.''

The team has rallied around Fortner.

"I think we will be all right,'' said Fortner, who spent the spring at reciver and then heard the news that he would be the new QB after Bench left. "It is different, but I'm a senior and I have to lead my team, regardless. I'm getting comfortable at quarterback. When coach told me, I was happy. I think we will have a good season. We lost a lot of players on defense, but we had some sophomores who played on the offensive line last year and they're back, and receiver Rashad Kelly is back.

"I think (losing the quarterback and assistant coach the way we did) just made us a more unified team, and more like a family.''

Fortner's quickness (he runs a 4.5 40-yard dash) makes him an ideal fit for Pilcher's veer offense, and Fortner won't be alone in a backfield full of returning running backs.

"We've got guys who can carry the mail,'' said Pilcher, who has three running backs with experience, including senior Aaron Hall, who gained more than 600 yards last year, Damian Bouie and Terry Lewis, who could be the breakout player on this team. Lewis, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior, was having such an impact on the junior varsity team last season that Pilcher brought him up at the end of the season.

"He really came on strong at the end of the year,'' Pilcher said. "He runs the ball well, and he's such a good athlete. The last two to three weeks of the season, he came on like gang-busters. He's a very physical back.

"This is a real good junior class,'' said Pilcher, whose team has 33 juniors, including Bouie to help the rebuilding project. Four of those start on the offensive line: Offensive tackles Tim Shaw (6-3, 265) and Madison Malone (5-10, 195), guard Aquivious Carroll (5-10, 250), and center Cole Granat (6-0, 240), who started two games last year. Senior Andre Jeglenski (6-0, 215) returns to anchor the line.

Only two seniors return as starters on defense: DT Shamii Wilburn (6-0, 255) who was a second-team All-Region player last year and DT Tarow Barney (6-1, 265). Brandon Crawford, a 5-10, 230-pound junior, also returns to start at defensive end.

But a new senior could make a difference.

Rodney Glenn, one of the top basketball players in the area, hasn't played football in three years, but Pilcher believes Glenn can not only play free safety, but make a difference there.

"He hasn't played in three years,'' Pilcher said. "If he had been playing all along everybody would be after him. He may be the surprise of the season.''

Bainbridge, which had a disappointing 3-7 season a year ago, wants to surprise everyone this year. Bench's departure was stunning and could have been devastating, but that's not the feeling at Bainbridge, where the kids have moved on and can't wait for the season to begin.

"I'm exciting about this bunch,'' Pilcher said. 'I don't know how good we're going to be. We're young. This is by far the youngest team I've had here in four years.

"These kids care about each other,'' he said. "It goes beyond that. I think they really care about each other as people.''

Bainbridge High's 2011 season outlook

MASCOT: Bearcats.

HEAD COACH: Ed Pilcher (fourth year at Bainbridge, 40th season overall as head coach; career record 223-80-1).

2010 RECORD: 3-7.

ASSISTANT COACHES: Leonard Guyton (offensive coordinator/running backs), Brian McCorckle (defensive line), Kelvin Cochran (inside linebackers), Doug Pilcher (outside linebackers), Jodi Sprenkle (offfensive line), Larry Cosby (receivers), Tom Wheeler (tight ends, offensive line).

RETURNING STARTERS: Quincy Fortner (Sr. QB), Rashad Kelly (Sr. WR), Shamaii Wilburn (Sr. DT), Aaron Hall, (Sr. RB), Terry Lewis (Jr. RB), Damian Bouie (Jr. RB), Andre Jeglenski (Sr. OG), Tim Shaw (Jr. OT), Aquivious Carroll (Jr. OG), Madison Malone (Jr. OT), Cole Granat (Jr. C), Tarow Barney (Sr., DT).

OTHER KEY PLAYERS: Rodney Glenn (Sr., FS/WR), B. J. Cheatam (Jr., LB), Marshal Mack (Jr., LB), Jamez Harris (Jr., LB), Dontavious Balkmon (Jr., CB), Bernard Burke (Sr., TE), Tate Griffin (Soph. C/OG), Brandon Crawford (Jr. DE).

2011 Bainbridge Bearcats' schedule

Friday vs. Early County, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 2 at Cairo, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 9 at Westover, at Hugh Mills, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 24 at Northside, Warner Robins, 2 p.m.

Sept. 30 vs. Hardaway, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs. Northside, Columbus, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 15 at Houston County, 7 p.m.

Oct. 21 vs. Warner Robins, 7:30 p.m.

Oct. 28 at Lee County, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 4 vs. Thomas County Central, 7:30 p.m.