It was not meant to be for Hampton come playoff time, though, with the ’Dogs dropping a heartbreaking one point loss at home to Rockwood, 7-6.
That loss has certainly fueled the team for this fall. With a dozen returning seniors and most of the young starting lineup on both sides of the ball back, they have the pieces to make this year special.
“A lot of last year’s inconsistencies had to do with our age,” head coach Michael Lunsford said. “We were so young. We’d play at a really high level one week and then the next week, we’d play at lower level. That’s one place we have to improve on this year is being more consistent.”
Some of the key returning starters for Hampton are in game-changing roles and could play an intricate role on both offense and defense.
Isaiah Greenwell is going to be looked at as one of the playmakers for Hampton as Lunsford will look to get the senior the football any way that he can. The tight ends for Hampton will be big as well, literally and figuratively.
Caleb Oaks (6-foot-2, 225 pounds) is a three-year starter along with his partner-in-crime Max Cash, who stands at an intimidating 6-5 and 230 pounds. Both will also look to wreak havoc on the defensive line.
One of the other big playmakers is senior wide receiver Gage Chambers. Chambers and Cash missed most of last season due to injuries, but both were invited to the Blue/Gray regional combine over the summer.
The Bulldogs are in arguably the deepest conference top to bottom in Northeast Tennessee in Region 1-2A. The frontrunners — who are really not separated by much — are Happy Valley, Sullivan North, Hampton and South Greene. Cosby will be much improved since it hardly graduated anyone last year, but it still might be a ways to go for the Eagles.
“I think we play in as competitive a conference as anybody in the state,” Lunsford said. “You can look at just about any league around the state and pick a favorite. In our league, it’s really a four-team race. Any team can beat anybody any given night.”
There really isn’t much of breathing point for Hampton in the first five weeks of the season, other than the bye week. The first three games on the road are a gauntlet and will test the Bulldogs from the word “go.”
The opening game is at Class 3A opponent Gatlinburg-Pittman and the following week is against a high-powered Unicoi County offense at Gentry Stadium.
The third week of the season against conference and Carter County foe Happy Valley is always a hard-fought game. After that three-game stretch, the first home game of the season is against rival Cloudland on Sept. 13. It’s the first of two matchups with the Highlanders this season, with the later game set for Oct. 11 in Roan Mountain.
The final three games of the regular season are at J.C. Campbell Stadium as Hampton hosts South Greene, Unaka and Cosby.