The signs are subtle, but there.
For instance, on Georgia State Route 140, heading northwest from Canton into the town of Waleska, there is Cline’s Market. It’s a simple shop, but on the side of the store is an enormous blue mural celebrating both the store, and the adjoining Reinhardt Eagles.
Making the NAIA Football Final Four could put you on the map.
It’s bringing buzz to this sleepy town, formed at the intersection of State Routes 140 and 108 about seven miles from Canton. How small is Waleska? There are no traffic lights, just a four way stop with a suspended flashing red traffic light where 140 and 108 meet. To put it another way, it’s so small, there isn’t even a Waffle House (but there is a Subway – so there’s that).
But it’s home to one of the more interesting stories of the NAIA. The Eagles made the Final Four in their fourth season. Their all-time record stands at 34-11. They didn’t lost a game outside of Georgia until the final regular season game in 2015. When the 2017 campaign starts in four months, they’ll be picked to make the playoffs for a third-straight year.
But the Eagles have never had an offseason like this one. Change has been everywhere. For the first time, names such as Stegall, Thompson, Bradley, Dennis, and Kennedy won’t be generating electrifying plays. With them in offense, the Eagles had the best rushing attack and offense in terms of points in the nation.
Change also struck the sidelines. For the first time, someone with the last name Cronic won’t be the head coach or calling the offensive plays. Drew Cronic, the head coach the last two years, went to Furman to serve as offensive coordinator. He two-year stint resulted in a 22-3 record. He took over for his father, Dr. Danny, who started the Eagle team and had two successive 6-4 marks.
Stepping in to deal with this change is James Miller (pictured above giving his team a pep talk after the scrimmage). A veteran of ‘Beamer Ball’ at Virginia Tech, Miller was the offensive line coach before stepping into the top slot. Now all eyes are on him as he takes the reins for spring practice.
Miller oversaw a scrimmage on Saturday at Ken White Field. It was the second one of the spring, and served as a good lead-up for the Spring Game, which will be held on April 8.
“They’re practicing hard,” Miller said. “We’re getting better, and right now we are decent on both sides of the ball.”
But Reinhardt must replace all of the skill players, and that starts at quarterback, where sophomore Dylan Wiggins has the edge. “He has good emotion,” Miller said of the sophomore from Ranburne, AL. “He has to get on the same page with his receivers.”
Wiggins appears to have a rapport with Montralius Mosely. The sophomore from Jonesboro, GA, apparently will be the backfield’s main threat in place of LJ Stegall. He caught some nice passes coming out of the backfield, but Wiggins missed several deep balls as he tried to connect with Joe Hull. The junior out of Mill Creek looks to take over as the big-time deep threat, roles that Tyler Bradley and Aaron Kennedy excelled in.
Reinhardt has three backs vying for the fullback role vacated by Dominique Swope and Deonte Dennis. Stanlee Logue, a junior from Etowah, has the edge in terms of blocking, but Trey Stowers, a sophomore out of Hart County, turned heads with plays such as a long touchdown run. During the scrimmage, he broke out over the left side, went on a diagonal route to the sidelines, and raced the end zone. M’Calun Lanier, a sophomore out of Atkinson County, has been getting quality reps as well.
The other backfield position of the Wing-T is a work in progress. Andy Whisenant and Michael Elder have been slowed in practice with nagging injuries, but should be good to go when fall camp opens in August.
Coach Miller will not be calling the plays. That job fall to Fred Jones, who, like Miller, has been with the program since its’ inception. “I’ve been upstairs in the booth all the time, so it’s not a hard transition,” Jones said.
He still talks to Drew Cronic, and remains thankful for the chance. “We talk all the time. He gave me this job and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Right now, Coach Jones is still evaluating the personnel. “We are real young,” he said. “But we have some playmakers. Injuries to players like (Qua) Stocks have been an issue, but they’re solid. They improve every day, and they won’t make the same mistake twice.”
As if all this change wasn’t enough, tragedy befell the program when beloved defensive line coach Quentin Moses, along with his girlfriend and her daughter, died in a house fire shortly before Valentine’s Day in Monroe. The investigation determined it was kitchen fire. The report ruled it an accident and the matter is closed.
But Moses’ death left a wound in the community, one that will take a long time to heal. His loss has been felt hardest with his charges. “They’re still struggling,” said quarterbacks and wide receivers coach Tom Tarquinio. (Like Miller and Jones, both Moses and Tarquinio have also been with the program since it started.)
“The players have to channel it in the right direction,” Tarquinio added. “Coach Moses was special. He won’t be forgotten around here.”
Even Reinhardt’s opponents will change. The Mid-South Conference will now consist of 20 teams and is billed as the nation’s largest conference. The 20 will be split into three divisions. Reinhardt is slated to be in the Appalachian Conference along with Bluefield (VA), Point (GA), St. Andrews (NC), Union (KY), Pikeville (KY), and Cumberlands (KY).
The 2017 slate has been finalized, and should be announced sometime this month. There was talk of adding an eleventh game in the last week of August, but negotiations have broken down.
With all this change, the one thing that never changes is the sky-high expectations. Nothing less than another berth in the NAIA playoffs, and a chance to advance to the championship, would be enough to satisfy the fan base of this university located in the mountains of Cherokee County.
And maybe such a berth would bring more visitors to the sleepy town of Waleska. And maybe then, the citizens will splurge for a traffic light at the intersection of Georgia State Route 140 and 108.