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Brian Tannehill / For Tallapoosa Publishers Payton Stephenson (3) attempts a pass under pressure Friday night.

The 2021-22 high school sports year is officially underway.

Monday marks the official start date for select AHSAA high school team practices, which include football, volleyball, cross country and swimming teams. And while most area teams are taking traditional approaches to starting practice, the Elmore County football team is doing things differently.

Elmore County, led by fourth-year head coach Jordan Cantrell, is headed to Limestone County on Sunday to a campground owned by the Southern Baptist Association. The Panthers will be there from Sunday afternoon until Wednesday.

There, the team and coaching staff split up into groups in each of the three dorm areas and will not only practice football, but also participate in team bonding experiences and other team activities.

There are multiple fields where the team can practice, along with lights that allow the team to practice at night. The coaches just had to paint the fields.

“This is just about bonding together and it’s going to be more than practice because practice will be limited, but it’s about being together, bonding, doing team activities together. Last year we weren’t able to do that as much with COVID around,” Cantrell said. “COVID is still alive and we will still take precautions there, but we are getting them away from all the other elements that they are normally exposed to.”

This isn’t the first time Cantrell has brought his teams here. When he was an assistant and head coach at West Limestone High School his teams went to the campground on a regular basis. He wanted to go last season, but COVID ruined the trip.

But now, as COVID loosened up in the spring and summer and allowed the teams to get back to at least a little sense of normalcy, Cantrell wanted to bring this year’s team.

He’s not looking for much football wise during his squad’s three days at the campground. What he is looking forward to is seeing how much his team can grow.

“We want them to show great effort and great teamwork,” Cantrell said. “Moving forth, that’s really what we are looking forward to and building their technique in the scheme we are implementing. We are just hoping to get back to some sense of normalcy and get back to doing team activities and bond as a team together.”

The Panthers went 2-8 last season and 0-6 in Class 5A, Division 4 play. Elmore County was forced to forfeit one game due to COVID. Its two wins came in the team’s bookend games against Moody in the season opener and Jemison in the season finale.

Elmore County returns a large group of experienced players, including junior quarterback Payton Stephenson. Stephenson played in nine games last season and accumulated 1,466 offensive yards and 15 touchdowns.

And although no starters have been named for this upcoming season, Cantrell believes his team can find success this year. He said his team led at halftime multiple times last season before losing the lead, and the game, in the second half.

This year, he hopes his team bonding activities at the campground can help keep those halftime leads.

“Tough times arise in a game and there’s going to be adversity you have to overcome in a game, so hopefully that bonding and working together will pay off in game-type settings,” Cantrell said. “It doesn’t always happen, but that’s our goal.”