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Coming off of a 14-win, Division 1 state runner-up season in 2011, Galax lost what was probably the most athletically gifted – and certainly the most highly-decorated – senior class in its history.
The Maroon Tide responded by coming within a whisker of winning nine regular season games in 2012. Heart-wrenching, last-minute (or last-second, in one instance) losses to Graham, Fort Chiswell and Grayson County resulted in a 6-4 mark instead of what could have been a 9-1 showing, a higher sectional seeding and who knows what different results in the playoffs.
As it was, the Tide finished at 7-5 after a second-round loss at Honaker.
Graduation hurt Galax again, as is apt to happen at any small school, but can the Tide respond to those departures as well as it did a year ago? The pieces are in place.
Offensively Galax returns a fullback, a beast of a tailback and four offensive linemen, which is a pretty good situation to be in for a team that bases everything off of a power running game.
“I think we’ve got the makings, we’re just really young,” said Maroon Tide coach Mark Dixon, entering his fourth year at GHS. “I love my kids and I love the talent level here. The young linemen on this team are going to end up being the best I’ve ever had. They’re really young but they’re really, really talented.”
Clearing the way up front will be an offensive line that features returning players in four of the six spots. Caleb Spurlin moves from tight end to tackle and is joined on the interior by returnees Zamir Echeagaray, Ben Sanchez and Bryant Cox.
Cross Gonzales and Daniel Edwards are good possibilities to fill a vacancy up front, and Brett Isom has been working out at Spurlin’s former tight end position. Cox is the only senior among them.
“I think the difference [in a 44-3 benefit game win over] Carroll was the speed at which they could play. They’re quick,” Dixon said. “They will allow us to run a lot of things we haven’t been able to run. They’re the difference, and obviously Steven.”
Aah, yes. Steven Peoples. Galax got 3,000 rushing yards and more than 50 touchdowns out of its ground game, the impressive 1-2 punch of brothers Donte and Steven Peoples. About half of that production is back in the form of Steven Peoples, a 5-foot-11, 200-pound senior. The younger Peoples racked up 1,390 yards and 24 touchdowns on 135 carries for an eye-popping 10.3 per-carry average. His high-water mark came in a Week 3 win over Eastern Montgomery in which he carried 25 times for 348 yards and four touchdowns.
“He has the speed but he has more power than anybody who has been here,” Dixon said. “And I mean linemen, anybody you can name in the four years I’ve been here, he is the most powerful kid I’ve had.”
In the Carroll game last Saturday, Peoples had one rushing touchdown, two receiving TDs and nearly broke a punt return for a score. Not bad for a kid who was named the MED’s defensive player of the year last year. And he’ll be playing out of position most of the time this year.
“I thought last year he was the best fullback I saw all year,” Dixon said. “He was the most devastating blocker I saw. His best position is fullback and I think he can play fullback at the next level, because he’s got great hands, he can run routes and he’s a devastating blocker. There are so many ways to use him. We put him at wideout, we threw a screen to him, ran the draw with him, we ran power with him and we ran a toss sweep. A lot of places you’ll have two or three players trying to run all that. He’s a complete player.
“It’s like you’re waiting on him to put on his cape. ‘Where have you got a problem…right guard? Put Steven there.’ ”
Joseph Dixon returns after seeing ample time last year at fullback for the Tide and Charles Harris will see action at both tailback and fullback.
Galax has installed a pistol look in an effort to increase production from the passing game, which should benefit a first-year quarterback, either junior Keyshawn Brown or freshman transfer Carson Orton. Dixon said Orton will get his snaps this year, but Brown got the start against Carroll, going 4-of-8 for 182 yards and three scores.
Top receiving targets will be Darian Brown, Seth Boyles, Logan Beamer and Leston Jones out wide and Isom at tight end. And strangely enough, the biggest key to Galax’s offense may be everybody but Steven Peoples.
“Those guys will have to make some plays,” said Dixon. “We’ve just got to get the ball out there. Everybody is going to put eight and nine people in the box to stop the run, and if we can’t get them out of there somehow, it’s going to be tough.”
Though the Galax offense stays basically the same in terms of philosophy, the Maroon Tide has made some changes on the defensive side of the ball in an effort to increase pass pressure and field a more effective pass coverage, the main culprits in the three late letdowns last year.
“We have to bring pressure,” Dixon said. “We have to. We’re being more aggressive on defense, but we’ll run into situations where some people will get behind us and catch touchdowns. Offensively we’ve got a chance to be pretty good. My biggest concern is on the defensive side of the ball. They’re getting better every day, and a lot of it is how much better we can get.”
Sanchez is back at defensive end while Echeagaray and Cody Sharpe are leading the way in the inside, along with Casey Leonard and Joel Carranza.
Spurlin and Isom are top inside linebackers in the new 4-2-5 look, though Spurlin has proven himself a more than capable defensive lineman if he is needed there.
Manning the flats in a linebacker/corner hybrid are Dixon and Peoples, the district’s top defensive player last year.
Daniel Larrowe is a speedy free safety and handling the corners are Darian Brown and Harris.
The Maroon Tide is still evaluating personnel and though the club is not deep in terms of experience outside of the skill positions, Galax appears to have several younger kids, or older inexperienced players, who may be able to earn more playing time as the year progresses.
Galax lost an extremely accurate placekicker in Eli Brady, who booted 54 PATs a year ago. Joel Carranza, Mario Carranza and Jonathen Reyna are battling for the kicking duties while Brett Isom returns at punter.
“I believe in our kids,” said Dixon. “I believe we have the talent to compete. If we can get better, we can do some things. If we can block for Steven, he’s a challenge. He’s a bell cow. He can go 30 carries. But if you can’t stop anybody it doesn’t matter what you can do on offense.”