History in the making

Clay Central head coach Danny Horn enters the 2019 season one win away from 300 career victories.

The magical run of Danny Horn’s triumphant return to coaching in Clay County culminated in last December’s thrilling 43-42 win over Vigor in the Class 5A state title game.

“Once you have time to reflect on it, it’s really, really special because of just how we did it,” Horn said. “At one time we were just, to be honest about it, a mediocre team.”

But now 2019 is upon us, and Horn is going to see if he can find the same magic for his second season back in the Volunteer county, even if that’s not the lens through which they’re looking at this season.

“You’ve got to establish your own identity,” Horn said. “And really what we did last year is not going to have a whole lot of effect on what we do this year.”

The after effects of any state championship tend to hit different teams in different ways, and Central of Clay County is finding that out the hard way as they prepare for the 2019 season.

A handful of key contributors to the state championship are gone, including title game MVP Shamari Simmons, defensive anchor Jaylon Bass and twin two-way players Paul and Dewayne Garrett.

“Some of the younger ones are trying, but you don’t replace a Shamari Simmons,” Horn said. “It’s hard to replace a Jaylon Bass in the middle. Even the two Garretts, they were winners. They played hard. It’s just hard to replace them.”

Even though their absence stings, those players were seniors, so those losses were expected. What is never expected is the rash of injuries that Central has withstood during the preseason, particularly to starting linebacker J.D. McNealey. McNealey suffered a fracture in his foot during an offseason football camp and spent most of July in a walking boot while recovering. He should be cleared to return to the field soon, but he will not be at full strength until at least two weeks into the season.

That’s no small loss, as McNealey was recently voted by his teammates as the best overall football player on Central’s team.

“There’s a chance he could play possibly in the first game,” Horn said. “The only problem is that he’s way out of shape. He’s ridden a stationary bike, but he hasn’t really done anything in four weeks. We’re going to ease him back in if they say he’s ready.”

McNealey is not alone on the shelf for now as a couple of starting offensive linemen are out with short-term injuries and starting running back Quentin Knight is dealing with a minor shoulder problem.

This after Central stayed almost completely healthy a year ago on its way to the 5A crown.

“It happens, and you can’t explain it,” Horn said. “Some years it seems like you can go through and it seems like every other day somebody’s getting hurt. And then some years you just go through it and not many people get hurt. Right now we’re kind of banged up.”

Central still has plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, so if all those banged up players get healthy the team should find itself in the playoff hunt once again by the end of the year.

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