By Gabriel Stovall
PEACHTREE City, Ga. — Last Friday, after the Henry County Warhawks just scored a touchdown, McIntosh junior Bradley Ector got set up to return the kickoff.
He took the ball and went right, on a collision course with a Henry County tackler, and then Ector stuck out his arm instinctively and delivered a stiff arm jab to the Warhawk defender, sending him to the ground and giving Ector a few more yards of running room.
It elicited a few oohs and ahhs from fans and sideline players a like, and it was the perfect play to summarize this newfound McIntosh mentality on the gridiron — lunch pail.
“I appreciate that compliment,” said McIntosh coach Lee Belknap, now in his sixth year at the program’s helm. “When people say we’re a lunch pail group, I know what that means, and it means a lot.”
It means the Chiefs, though not teeming with speed guys running sub 4.4-seconds in the 40-yard or front loaded with a roster full blue chip athletes, are more than a formidable threat to challenge for a Region 3-AAAAA championship while making a deep postseason run.
“Maturity,” Belknap said. “It’s really the difference between this year’s team and last year. Last year we played a bunch of young guys and took our lumps, but each game this year, we had a little bit of adversity. Someone went down (with injury), but that’s the name of the game in football. We have a thing we promote in our locker room. We talk about having stand in the gap l
eadership, and that’s what these guys have been doing.”
McIntosh’s 3-0 start is just the third in school history, and the performances have been solid, particularly when talking about Ector, whom Belknap said has taken some of the greatest maturation steps of anyone on the team.
“Really, it’s very obvious with him as to how he’s grown,” he said. “(Last year) as a sophomore, he had the typical sophomore struggles. Getting him to wear an ankle brace. You know, him coming to practice 60 seconds late and not realizing that you’re either on time or not. But this year there have been no issues. I look back to January at the start of the season, and he’s been leading in the weight room, into spring, during the dog days of summer. He’s a quiet leader, but he’s been setting our tone.”
But it’s not just Ector who’s been pacing the Chiefs. When quarterback Zach Sanders went down with a mild shoulder sprain in the Mount Zion game after a hot start, throwing a pair of touchdown passes, it was Kyle Riesselmann coming in and keeping the squad together.
Belknap said he hopes to get Sanders back by the time McIntosh opens region play on September 22 against Riverdale. But in the meantime, he expects no drop off with Riesselmann under center Friday when the Chiefs host Luella.
“Well, you know the old saying, a team’s only as good as your backup QB,” he said. But Kyle’s proven that we can with him. In the locker room after the Mount Zion game, Kyle only wanted to give credit to the defense. But, you know, he was being humble, because he made some plays too that helped us win. And then (last Friday) against Henry County, when they kept coming and coming, Kyle did a good job of keeping our offense moving.”
As a result of the combination of a blue collar work ethic, maturity and just the right amount of skill guys getting things done, McIntosh is turning heads and creating buzz while winning games that it might not have had the grit to win in 2015.
Ector and others have said that they want to be as good as — if not better than — the 8-3 bunch from 2011 that has been the standard bearer of McIntosh football. And while Belknap is as cautious about such talk while in the throes of a season as most coaches are, he’s not totally against allowing himself to dream about this team’s potential.
“I see similarities between that 8-3 team and this one,” he said. “But I tell the guys we have now that I’ll never get tired of using that word ‘maturity.’ That 8-3 team accomplished a lot of firsts that many told them could not be done. We know we’ve got a tough grind ahead of us, but luckily we’ve got some belief riding on our backs this season, instead of the uncertainty of that kind of success never happening before.”
And that means being willing to toss out past successes to make room for more.
“Win or lose, we tell our guys that when you wake up on Sunday morning, throw it in the trash and move on,” he said. “I know that sounds like coachspeak, but we really do try to look at it that way. Being 3-0 now doesn’t feel too good if we end up 3-1 this Friday after Luella.”