SPRING GARDEN – Spring Garden fullback/linebacker Luke Welsh already understands what it means to be a senior football player. Now he’s excited to add some memories that will be with him the rest of his life.
“I always hear the old guys tell stories about their senior year,” he said. “They tell stories about their junior year and other stuff too, but you always hear them telling stories about their senior year. That’s what everybody comes back to. You’re going to be remembered by your senior year. I think it’s a big thing for us to come out here and do what we can our last year.”
Welsh has plenty of Panther teammates who share his sentiments. Spring Garden has seven seniors on its roster this season, and returns a boatload of experience from last year (11 starters on offense, 10 on defense).
As if that wasn’t enough excitement for the Panthers, they’re also moving up to Class 2A for the first time in school history. Spring Garden now competes in Region 6 along with Cleveland, Gaston, Locust Fork, Sand Rock, Southeastern, Westbrook Christian and West End.
But the move up isn’t an intimidating one for the Panthers, who went 11-2 last year in 1A.
“We’re just ready to play and make our last stand,” Welsh said. “I think we’ve got a good chance (for a big year). I like our odds.”
With so much returning to this year’s Panther squad, Spring Garden football coach Jason Howard said it’s already put them “ahead of the learning curve” at practice.
“Instead of having to take time and install everything, we just do it now as a refresher,” Howard said. “These kids knew, when I called a play, they were like ‘OK, I remember that’, especially the backfield. I haven’t had to spend much time on mechanics, footwork, stuff like that. They’ve repped it enough that it’s almost like second nature to them.”
Ah, yes. The Panther backfield.
Not only does it include an all-state performer in Welsh, who ran for over 1,200 yards and 21 touchdowns last season, but it also includes reigning All-Cherokee County Offensive Player of the Year in senior Ryley Kirk (back-to-back 1,500-yard passing seasons). Senior running back Weston Kirk and junior scatback Andrew Floyd also return to make for a crowded backfield.
Add in several pass catchers who emerged last season in juniors Cooper Austin and Chaz Pope and sophomore Cam Welsh, and the Panther offense becomes a nightmare in which opposing defenses have to prepare.
“Not being cocky or anything, but I think they’re as good as they come,” Ryley Kirk said of the Panther playmakers. “We’ve got the experience. We’re just comfortable with each other. We know what to do.”
Perhaps even bigger than the Panther playmakers who are returning is who is coming back along the offensive front. A unit that was largely untested heading into last season comes back in its entirety this year, which includes juniors Cade Williams and Landon Gowens.
“Last year we had to replace all of them, so the fact we have them across the board coming back is huge,” Howard said.
Defensively, the Panthers are just as solid. They’re looking to replace Lucas Byers in the secondary, but other than that position, experience abounds, including Welsh and Weston Kirk at the linebacker spots.
Welsh posted 56 tackles, including five for loss last year. Weston Kirk, a second-team all-state performer, led the team with 13 sacks last season.
“Our defense is one of those things right now that’s sort of open,” Howard said. “We’ve got a couple of kids who are pushing for a starting position, but at the position they’re pushing, they’re probably going to split time anyway because that’s just the way we rotate in at those positions. I’ve been very pleased with some of our kids who have stepped up and did some things.”
With all the players the Panthers have returning, it should make their transition to 2A easier.
For Weston and Ryley Kirk, it doesn’t matter which classification the Panthers play. They’re just grateful for one last season to play with their teammates.
“We could play in 3A or 4A, we’re still just going to go out and play as hard as we can,” he said. “It’s just fun playing with these guys. I’ve known them my whole life. This is our last year together. It’s what we’ve been looking forward to since we were little kids in preschool. It’ll be a fun year.”
“People are probably doubting us a lot more, saying the (2A) teams are better, but we’ll be all right when it’s all said and done,” Ryley Kirk said. “Maybe we’ll be remembered for more than just playing in 2A for the first time ever.”