This is the seventh and final article in a series of stories highlighting each local football program's preparation for the upcoming season. Fall practice began Monday, but teams have been preparing for the season for months in the weight room and on the conditioning field.
Athens' football program has seen improvement each of the three years Cody Gross has been head coach. The Golden Eagles have gone from three wins to five wins to eight wins.
But one thing Athens hasn't done in that time frame is win a playoff game. The Golden Eagles are 0-2 in the playoffs under Gross, losing 21-0 to Clay-Chalkville in 2017 and 24-14 to Homewood last season.
That is something Gross would like to see change.
“That's the plan,” he said. “We've were 3-7, then 5-6 and then last year 8-3, but we haven't gotten past the first round of the playoffs. That's something that I think of every day. We definitely have to take that next step.”
The football regular season may only last 10 weeks, but the preparation for the season takes the entire year. Gross said he has been pleased with the work the team has put in during the offseason, especially his senior class, who were freshman when Gross took over as head coach.
“It's a group of guys who have been with us a long time,” Gross said. “They know what to expect, and there's been a lot of leadership from that group of guys. They have bought in to what we do, they understand it and they help us uphold the standard. That's been big for us.”
Athens does have some holes to plug, including members of both its offensive and defensive lines, and quarterback Logan Smothers, who transferred to Muscle Shoals for his senior season. But the Golden Eagles also have numerous players who are three-year starters, which Gross said makes a huge difference.
“It's a mixture of very experienced guys and some very inexperienced guys,” he said. “The experienced guys have done a good job with being leaders and helping the others.”
While Gross hasn't won a playoff game as Athens' head coach, he was offensive coordinator during the Golden Eagles' last great run of success, which included a state championship in 2006. That capped off a three-year stretch where Athens advanced to the Class 5A semifinals, quarterfinals and won the state title.
But the familiar theme that ran through those three seasons were the mediocre records Athens put up in the regular season. The Golden Eagles were 5-5 in 2004 when they advanced a run to the semifinals, were 6-4 in 2005 when they advanced to the quarterfinals, and were 7-3 in 2006 when they went 5-0 in the playoffs and won the state championship. That is a lesson the current Athens players can take, Gross said.
“The year we won it, we were 2-3 the last five games of the season,” he said. “It was a group of guys who were resilient and wanted to keep playing. And they hit their stride at the right time. Obviously, we want to win them all, but what we're looking for is to be playing our best ball when the leaves change.”