PERRY -- There was momentum of three straight winning seasons awaiting Perry in 2013. The Panthers racked up wins over Mary Persons, Westside, Houston County and made the playoffs all three seasons.
But head coach Stacey Harden resigned in late April of the 2012-13 school year, meaning the Panthers would open up preseason practice that August with a different staff than the one that conducted spring practice. Erik Soliday was hired in May, and he, his staff and his team had to wait awhile to figure out what the season might hold.
“We had the summer last year, but we never got the opportunity to see anybody in pads,” he said. “A lot of kids look great in summer workouts. All of a sudden, they put on pads, and it ain’t the same guy.”
The Panthers had talented players, like two-way standouts Mark Riley and Shawn Greene, as well as Dillon Hanners and Tyler McGhee, among others. But the program’s latest transition was too much to build on after the three winning seasons. Soliday is Perry’s fifth head coach since the turn of the century, after the Panthers had seven from 1954-1994. So Soliday knew the road wouldn’t be smooth, even with a better-timed start.
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Only two people since Herb St. John (1954-1968) have returned for a sixth season as the team’s head coach, George Collins (1995-2000, 20-40, and Bob Morrow, 1971-78, 44-36-1).
Chuck Conley (17-25, four seasons) followed Collins, and then Andy Scott, who went 24-12 his first three seasons and 3-17 in his final two, before Harden.
Scott and Harden are the only Perry head coaches since Morrow to have three straight winning seasons. In fact, 3-7 is tied with 2-8 and 7-4 as the most common record at Perry in the past 25 seasons.
“Let’s be honest,” Soliday said. “We’re taking a program with no tradition. You take a program with one region championship in its entire history. ... We’ve gotta get not just the kids that are playing. You’ve gotta get the community and your school and everybody else excited about football.”
Perry isn’t the only team in GHSA Region 2-AAAA that should be better. The region lost Westside and Rutland, a pair of playoff teams, and gained Upson-Lee and new head coach Tommy Parks.
“Veterans has turned the corner,” Soliday said. “Mary Persons is Mary Persons. West Laurens has everybody back. We could be a much better football team and have a worse record.”
As has usually been the case, Perry returns some talented players.
Wideout/defensive back KJ Smith has an undiagnosed physical condition that has prevented him from being cleared to play. He was an all-region pick, as was offensive lineman Ashton Strange, defensive lineman Chad Howard, linebacker Cole Lavendar, and defensive backs Jacorey Harris and Davonte Danielly.
New quarterback Trey Coryell stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 210 pounds and has a quality group of potential targets. Soliday’s optimism hinges primarily on the physical, and how the Panthers jumped headfirst into improved conditioning.
“I felt like we made big strides in the weight room,” he said. “We’re a lot stronger than we were a year ago. It’s more of a mentality than anything.
“A lot of our kids got so much stronger that they started noticing the difference.”
That led to a stronger work ethic, which tends to bolster confidence. And the Panthers, who were outscored 60-6 in a late-season two-game stretch, need a dose of that. Soliday said players like Howard, Strange and Lavendar were already impactful, but the improved physical condition has made a difference.
“I see a lot more confidence because of the strength factor,” Soliday said, citing Lavendar as an example. “He’s a lot more confident. A lot will depend if we can get the kids confident, and can get a win or two,” Soliday said. “Who knows what might happen with this group?”
PERRY IN 2014
Head coach: Erik Soliday (169-116-2 in 25 seasons overall; 3-7 in one season at Perry).
2013 record: 3-7.
2014 region: GHSA 2-AAAA.
Returning starters: 5 on offense; 6 on defense.
Players to watch: KJ Smith (6-0, 160, Sr., WR); Devonte Danielly (5-9, 170, Sr., RB); Chad Howard (6-3, 270, Sr., DT); Josh Cross (6-3, 250, Sr., G); Brandon Williams (5-10, 165, Sr., WR).
Aug. 22 at Monroe
Sept. 5 Peach County
Sept. 11 Macon County
Sept. 19 at Brooks County
Sept. 26 Mary Persons
Oct. 3 at Howard
Oct. 10 Upson-Lee
Oct. 17 at Veterans
Oct. 24 Baldwin
Oct. 31 at West Laurens