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Jim Denny / For Tallapoosa Publishers Daleville’s Jalen White is stopped by Reeltown’s Jordan Whitlow (21) and Labrian Ponds (53).

The Reeltown Rebels are tired of hearing about last year. They don’t want to play the “what if” game anymore. They know they could’ve done better and they know they messed up.

But now, they’re hungrier than ever.

“We just want to get back on the field and play,” Reeltown coach Matt Johnson said. “We were probably pretty amped up with our staff as a whole anyway but we just took it another level. Everyone is coaching hard; the players know that. And they’re playing hard. They’re holding each other accountable.”

Although Reeltown lost some key pieces on defense, the Rebels return such a lethal offense they expect to be right back where they were a year ago. But this time an upset in the first round isn’t acceptable, and they’ve been working toward that goal since the season ended.

Typically Reeltown doesn’t work out through December, but this year that changed as its workout program began right after the season ended. And it hasn’t let up since.

“There was a growing pain because that was something they hadn’t seen,” Johnson said. “It was hard but that same structure is fun now. You’re going to get coached up and you’re expected to do things at a high level. Regardless of what skill set we have, I don’t care if it’s the first team or the third team, you’re expected to go hard. We don’t have time to coach effort. We don’t even list that as an expectation. You just do that. That’s just a part of who you are.”

And the Rebels know that.

Offensively, Reeltown returns the likes of Cameron Faison, who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards last year despite splitting the carries; Eric Shaw, who just committed to South Carolina as a tight end and will also play linebacker; and Tre Tre Hughley, who battled an injury last year and throughout the offseason but should return.

“He’s moving around,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if he’ll be ready (the first week). But we got him a brace and he’s starting to move around. He’s running, he’s sprinting and he’s starting to get more in shape. I don’t know when but I do definitely expect him to be back.”

The Rebel offense will be led by sophomore quarterback Iverson Hooks, who won the starting job with his speed, and Johnson expects receiver Johnny Brown and running back Scooter Brooks to both have breakout years offensively. He also said the Rebels should be more balanced with receivers like Shaw, Brown and Rhasheed Wilson.

Both the offensive and defensive lines will be anchored by returning starters Nelson Whale, L.J. Hill and Dee Griffin.

The biggest question mark came at linebacker where Reeltown graduated the most talent with guys like Jordan Whitlow and Trey O’Neal. Shaw will be a starter and Logan Hunt has emerged as a talented inside linebacker who will most likely starter. Fans can also expect to see Logan Lee, Robert Crittenden and Brooks in the linebacker rotation of Reeltown’s 3-4 defense.

“We have got to be more physical at that position,” Johnson said. “I challenged them with that. I said, ‘I want to see you physical Reeltown — I’m talking about snot-bubble football. Go knock the mess out of somebody.’ They’re good at taking coaching but I don’t want them to be so coached up that they’re robotic. I want them to play; I want them to be instinctive.”

Reeltown has gotten bitten by the injury bug for the last few seasons with guys like Lio Lewis, Shaw, Hughley and more go down with season-ending injuries last year. But that’s been a focus. Although injuries can’t be prevented completely, it has been something the Rebels have been cautious of during offseason workouts.

“Last year, I’ve never seen knee injuries like we had,” Johnson said. “A lot of it was luck and a couple were just freak stuff that happened. But I also have to evaluate that and say, ‘Even though it may not have been something that we did, can we do something to prevent it?’”

With that in mind, the Rebels changed up their weight room habits and focused on strengthening the core of their knees and also shoulder injuries.

Without getting ahead of itself too much, Reeltown does have lofty expectations this season especially if it can keep everyone healthy.

“Of course everybody wants to win state,” Johnson said. “We want to make it to the playoffs and win the last game.”

Lizi Arbogast is the sports editor at Tallapoosa Publishers, Inc.