Hardin Valley opens at Oak Ridge Friday

HARDIN VALLEY — When Hardin Valley Academy opens its 2017 football season it will face a tough test at Oak Ridge.

And that’s just how Hawks head coach Wes Jones likes it.

“They’re a good football team,” Jones said of the Wildcats. “We have to tighten up a few things, but we’re going to go to work and get ready for Oak Ridge.

“They have some great players and it’s going to be a great matchup. We have a tough non-region schedule and that will prepare us for our region schedule. We’ve spent the last years in that Super 32 [the previous Class 6A alignment] and that was tough for us. We had to schedule some non-region games where we could rest for a minute.”

Hardin Valley has a young squad. But the Hawks, who enjoyed a breakout 2016 campaign that saw them win nine games, have some talented running backs and wide receivers.

Senior running back Aaron Dykes is back after rushing for 1,483 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He said he’s ready to take on the Wildcats.

“This is a great way to start a season,” Dykes said. “We’re playing against a great team that has some great players.

“We’re playing in a historic stadium [Blankenship Field]. There’s been a lot of NFL players and [NCAA] Division I players play in that stadium and on that field.”

The Hawks, who went 9-4 last season and won a pair of playoff games, lost 23 seniors from last year’s team, which was the first team in school history to host — and win — playoff games.

“Once we won the first-round playoff game, it was like a weight had been lifted off our shoulders,” Dykes said. “It was an awesome feeling and we’re just hoping to have another great year.”

Despite last season’s groundbreaking feat, “we have to work harder. We have a young team,” Jones said.

“Aaron Dykes is the best running back that we’ve faced. He can take nothing and make it into a breakout play,” Wildcats head coach Joe Gaddis said. “He’s a talented kid and he’s also good on defense.”

As for the Wildcats, they lost a huge impact player in wide receiver and defensive back Tee Higgins [now at Clemson].

But Gaddie has plenty of weapons back from last year’s region championship squad. Running back Jordan Graham returns for his senior season. He had 113 carries for 1,210 yards and scored 14 touchdowns.

Caleb Martin, a senior who had 17 receptions last year, will likely emerge as a favorite target for Oak Ridge quarterback Johnny Stewart. Other key offensive weapons include junior wide receivers Jeremy Mitchell and Kai’Reese Pendergrass.