As long as he's been the head football coach at East Marion High School, Anthony Dillon has been able to call a running play and watch Xavier Grindle line up in the back field. So it was a little bit of a strange feeling not seeing the former Dandy Dozen, now Mississippi State, running back carry the rock at the start of fall practice.
"Since I've been here at East Marion High School, Xavier's been a player on my team," said Dillon, "My first year here, we won a championship in junior high. We made it to the championship when he was a senior, but we didn't come home with that trophy."
Then there's last season's 2A state championship game in which a number of turnovers and missed opportunities from the Eagles led to a 26-7 drubbing by West Bolivar. Grindle's loss may leave a void to be filled, but that loss in the state title game might have just left an ever bigger one for Dillon's team.
"Once we lost that game, we came back that next Monday, trying to get prepared for the next season," shared Dillon, "I've been telling the guys, 'Guys, we can't get there and lay an egg like that.'"
While they'll have a number of seniors returning on defense, the Eagles have questions to answer on offense, especially at running back. That won't be the case at quarterback. Deandre Johnson returns for his senior season, and will line up under center for the third straight season; something that should give Dillon plenty of confidence.
"Deandre Johnson is a very good competitor," said Dillon, "He loves competition. The guy has the heart of a lion. We told him, you got to be a leader on this team."
East Marion will have to battle through a very tough division that includes Bassfield, North Forrest, Lumberton and up-and-coming Richton to make it back to Jackson. Dillon says he wants his team to move past the state title game, to learn from it, but not to forget it.
"(I want them)to go back down memory lane, to see how it felt to just get there and not come home with it, watching the other team celebrate," said Dillon, "Hopefully those guys came into the summer and worked real hard. Hopefully, we can get back to where we were last year."