It wasn’t a fun ride home.
The Good Hope Raiders, full of hopes and dreams of a deep run in the Class 4A playoffs, were left stunned as the cool November night breeze flowed through the bus traveling south on I-65 back to Cullman County.
The 2020 season wasn’t supposed to end this way.
They had just lost to West Limestone in the second round of the playoffs. Thoughts of what might have been crept in their minds, no doubt. It’s not that the Wildcats weren’t a formidable opponent. They had won their region championship and may have been considered the favorites going into the matchup.
This was a Good Hope team on the rise with playmakers all over the field and a coach doing things the right way to build a program. The Raiders believed they could win.
And that’s the mentality coach Alan Scott had been cultivating all along.
“You can ask any of our players — we felt like we could have beat West Limestone,” said Scott, entering his seventh season as the Raiders coach. “I think the stats, we outgained them 400 yards to 200. But the only thing that matters is the scoreboard. That was disappointing for our guys, but this is what we said on the bus ride home — we’re dejected after a second-round loss, whereas five years ago we would have killed to be in the playoffs, much less the second round. So, the mentality then is different now.”
Good Hope has been one of the top teams in Cullman County the last three years, sporting a 29-7 record with three playoff wins. But Scott and his group of coaches certainly had some growing pains during their first three years, compiling a 7-23 record that included an 0-10 season in 2016.
“It wasn’t easy to start with,” Scott said. “What we were wanting to do was try to establish a mindset and the mentality of what I believe Good Hope football should be. We hit some bumps early, obviously went 3-7 the first year and 0-10 the next year. Going through an 0-10 season, it’s hard. I have a lot of respect for those players that played during that time and went through that. A lot of the young guys that were part of those couple of seasons, by the time they were seniors, we went 11-2 and reached the third round.”
Scott also credits the continuity of his staff for helping build the program to this point.
“This coaching staff is unbelievable,” he said. “We’ve pretty much been together for all seven years, which is the longest that I’ve ever been around the same group of guys. They’re just good at what they do, and they’re consistent. Our guys are not having to learn a new system every year.”
It’s no secret who will be the key to Good Hope’s offense — senior quarterback and The Times’ reigning All-Area Player of the Year Tanner Malin.
Malin is entering his third year as starting signal-caller and is coming off a 2020 campaign in which he landed a spot on the Class 4A All-State first team as an athlete. The dual-threat star completed 61 of 84 passes for 874 yards and six touchdowns to go along with 1,211 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns.
“His expectation of himself is going to be higher than anything that I could put on him,” Scott said. “We put the ball in his hands, and he has to make reads and make decisions. He’s done what he needs to do in the offseason to try to strengthen his arm and his body and get ready for the season.”
One weapon Malin will not have at his disposal is bulldozing back Colton Bagwell. But the backfield isn’t devoid of talent. Seniors Ethan A. Anderson and Jager Burns both saw playing time last season, while juniors Charlie O’Neil and Kaleb Jones also will be counted on for quality contributions.
Anderson racked up 841 all-purpose yards last season, including 36.9 yards per kick return. He scored four touchdowns and also was a key player on defense.
With the Raiders’ multiple offense Scott referred to as a “diamond offense,” three of those four will often be on the field at the same time. That means any could split out at wide receiver.
And they’re not Malin’s only weapons.
Seniors Paydon Bagwell, Braxton Marshall and Drew Easterwood will be prime targets on the outside.
“Those are the guys we’re looking to get the ball to in the air, and Tanner is capable of getting it to them,” Scott said.
Where Good Hope will, perhaps, have some growing pains is along the offensive front. The Raiders lost several starters on the line, including All-State second-team performer Doston Putman, as well as Jackson Dillashaw, an All-Area first-teamer.
The lone returning starter is Morgan Cook, who will be counted on as the anchor at guard. As for the other four spots, Scott said he and his coaches are “trying to find the right mix.”
Clayton Herring, Guillermo Alday, Russ Wooten, Caleb Willis, Wyatt Jones, Matthew Simmons and Eli Clements are all battling for playing time.
“They’re learning,” Scott said. “We’ve just got to get them to gel.”
Much like the offensive line, the defensive front will be looking for a new identity in 2021 as the Raiders attempt to replace three starters.
The lone returner, Herring, is a known force as an All-Area first-teamer and All-State honorable mention.
Others vying for playing time up front include Simmons (sophomore) and senior Jorge Estudillo.
Scott said he will have two new linebackers in his 4-2-5 scheme, though one is Burns. The senior is switching to middle linebacker after previously seeing time in Good Hope’s secondary. The other spot is “really open,” the coach said.
As for the leader of the defense, Scott tabbed Bagwell at weak safety.
“The weak safety the last few years has been the guy that sets the tone and is really, really critical,” Scott said.
Anderson and Malin will play at cornerback, and a player Scott said he is excited about is Taz Bartlett. Though undersized, the junior “plays very big.”
“He’s impressed us for a couple of years,” Scott said. “He’s been patient and is going to be our strong safety this year.”
Senior Briley Mattox and junior Jed Clements also will play safety.
Malin has been handling punting duties the last couple of seasons, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue utilizing a rugby-style kick in 2021.
Robert Rodriguez, a freshman, will be the placekicker.
“He’s done a great job working this summer,” Scott said. “We’re looking for big things from him.”
Malin, Anderson, Burns and Bagwell will each see action as kick returners.
The Raiders will again compete in 4A, Region 6 and hope to make another playoff run.
Etowah won the region title last season but lost several playmakers, while Good Hope finished second by virtue of a 31-20 loss to the Blue Devils. There’s also Oneonta, Dora, Fultondale, Ashville and Hanceville.
“They’re all quality programs, all with good coaching staffs,” Scott said. “We won’t take anything for granted. We’re not trying to live on the previous year’s success. I think when you establish that kind of mindset, it helps our kids moving forward to know what our expectations are.”
Good Hope opens the season against West Morgan on Aug. 19 and also has non-region dates against West Point, Haleyville and Addison.