JASPER, Fla. — A long season for Hamilton County reached its low point in early October.
With injuries mounting and the roster numbers dwindling, the Trojans had to forfeit its Oct. 4 game at Newberry.
It was a tough day for the Trojans and coach Richard Vester.
“We only had about 14 kids and one player quit at 1:30 p.m. and another got sick.” Vester said. “So we were down to 12 kids and the kicker and the middle school kids had already played their game for the week.”
But with the middle school and junior varsity schedules concluding, the Trojans called up 10 additional JV players to finish out the season, which saw Hamilton County win just one game for the third straight season, finishing 1-9.
Still, with all the challenges and obstacles thrown their way, Vester was proud of how the Trojans responded.
“It’s pretty amazing what they did,” he said. “Even the last game of the season we had 20 players and Paxon had 40, and it went down to the wire. We had four coaches to their eight.”
In addition to looking to draw more players onto the football field, a return to health of key players also will brighten Hamilton’s outlook heading into 2020.
Jhebari Martin and Tyler Whetstone, two of the Trojans’ leaders entering the season, were among the HCHS players that were injured and missed time. Martin, a lineman on both sides of the ball, and Whetstone, who played quarterback and safety, will both be seniors next year.
Despite being injured and missing Hamilton’s final five games, Whetstone led the Trojans with 308 yards passing and three touchdowns while also rushing for 323 yards and three more scores with a 6.7 per carry average.
In his place, sophomore Connor Jones moved from wingback to quarterback and added 42 yards rushing and 107 yards passing.
With both players returning, Vester said the offseason will provide an answer as to who will take the snaps next year for the Trojans.
“The offseason, starting in January, is going to be key for us,” he said. “We have to decide who is leading the offense. Both started on defense, but it’s nice having a dual threat if one needs a break or gets hurt we have another that we’re confident can do the job.”
Whetstone is confident the Trojans will be able to do a better job next year, particularly after a strong finish to the 2019 campaign.
“We will try to carry that momentum to the next season; we could have won more games, but I’m not too upset about it,” he said. “Next year we will be better and stronger and I hope we can make it to a playoff game.”
Also returning to the backfield with Whetstone and Jones will be the Trojans’ leading rusher in Foster Bristol, a rising junior. He rushed for 652 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
“Besides (Amhwe) Bell, our whole backfield is coming back,” Vester said. “And we’re only graduating one offensive lineman.
“He’s got a big upside, and he played exceptional for a 10th grader. He’ll lean himself out in the weight room.”
That experience has Bristol expecting bigger things next year as well.
“I want 1000 yards rushing and 100 tackles,” he said as he will be counted on defensively with HCHS losing its top three tacklers in Bell, Kane Miller and Nigel Cherry, all seniors.
HCHS offensive line coach Tyler Stevens added: “That’s on the high end. But it’s possible.”
Helping him try to achieve those high personal goals will be Stevens’ unit, which will return four starters headlined by Martin. He will be joined by fellow rising senior David Pert as well as Caden Dunaway, who will be a junior, and Roman Perez, who will be a sophomore.
“That’s usually a positive sign and I thought we grew well as a unit toward the end of the season,” he said. “The leadership role is up for grabs, but as a whole one man won’t make or break an offensive line. We have five guys and five assignments; every single one has to work together to make this work. If one guy misses, it all falls apart.”
With the dynamic Jeremiah Gibson and Omar Lopez both set to return, Hamilton is also looking for strides on special teams next year as well.
Lopez, a soccer player turned kicker, hit all eight of his extra points and also proved a weapon on kickoffs.
“Getting field goal points could have made a difference in a couple games last year,” Vester said. “Now that he’s played a year, he has confidence. He’s certainly a weapon, and he has a future in kicking.”
“His kickoffs were perfect, he gave up one big run all year. He kicks to right where it’s supposed to be, with good height. He can kick it in the end zone, and he had a few touchbacks last year. We’re going to send him to some kicking camps this offseason.”
Gibson, who advanced to state last year in track and field, is possibly the Trojans’ most dynamic player.
“For him two negatives equal a positive sometimes. He definitely has a gift for changing fields and he went to the state track championship last year,” Vester said. “He’s our fastest guy; he can play receiver and tailback and he loves kickoff returns.”