Class AAAA football blog: Will Mays become the team to beat after drop in classification?

Since taking over as head coach of the Mays football program in 2016, Niketa Battle has put together four excellent seasons for the Raiders. During his inaugural season, Battle led Mays to its first region title since 2003 and went undefeated in Class AAAAAA Region 5. From there the Raiders continued to dominate the region, going undefeated during the 2017 and 2019 seasons all while claiming the region title for both years. Now, the Raiders move down to Class AAAA Region 6 where they will face tough opponents like Stephenson, Marist and Hapeville, who made the jump from Class AA. 

Will the move down in classification help Battle and the Raiders?

“It’ll be the same dog fights every week,” said Battle regarding his new classification and region. “When you look at Stephenson, they’ve played ball with us for four years and they’re going down to the same region. Hapeville Charter played in Class AA ball, but they’ve won a state title and several region titles. In football, you just have to look at it like this. If you don’t have a real big program in terms of numbers like having 120 kids, when you get down to it its all about the kids that you have on the field. I don’t see this as being a step down. It may be just as competitive.”

Battle has had his fair share of experience competing with several of the teams in his region, and knows that the reclassification won’t hinder the intense competition between teams. The Marist War Eagles will make the move from region 7 where they boasted a 5-1 region record in 2019, dropping only one loss to future Class AAAA champs Blessed Trinity in an overtime shoot out. 

“With Marist, the years I use to coach down in Dekalb County, we use to battle against coach Chadwick, said Battle. “He has an awesome program. He’s been coaching for thirty plus years, he probably only has to watch me and he already knows the plays he’s going to call based on how our team lines up. It’s a competitive region. I say this without a knock against any other team in Class AAAA this year, but I believe the two top teams in our region will probably end up going real deep in the playoffs or make it to the state championship. When you look at our region, its stacked.”

A big part of Battle’s plans to quickly establish Mays as a dominate force in its new region will be to evaluate his team and fill in some missing pieces. With 19 starters leaving the team, including quarterback Andrew Banks, Battle will have to look to his younger talent to step up big and help continue the prolific run the Raiders have had. 

“A lot of my kids that are coming back are younger kids, and they’re inexperienced. One of the most important things is my quarterback, because he was a senior. My backup tore his ACL last year, so he’s probably going to be out till October. I have two sophomores and one freshman coming in that will be competing for the starting job.”

On defense, the Raiders lose one of their biggest assets in defensive end Jaquari Wiggles. The Chattanooga commit was a key piece to Mays’ defensive line and will not be an easy player to replace. 

“What we’re going to have to end up doing interior wise is putting our two best defensive linemen on the inside, to get some size down there. We’re going to have to have a lot of outside linebacker play to make up the difference of not having him (Wiggles) on the edge. He caused a lot of teams to change their game plan because a lot of people tried to run away from him. That’s every year though. You lose a good player and someone else has to step up.”

While another region title is certainly in the realm of possibilities for the Raiders, their end goal remains the same. To bring home the school’s first ever state championship, and strongly represent the Atlanta Public Schools system. Even with some questions regarding the team needing to be answered, coach Battle knows his team should not be overlooked as the ones who can bring the first high school football title to the city of Atlanta since 1973.

“I’ve been in the Mays program now for nine years,’’ said Battle. “I was assistant head coach when Corey Jarvis was head coach. We made it to the state championship. Once we get to that level of play, no one can take us lightly as a contender for a state title. I don’t want to just settle for being in the playoffs though. I want to bring that championship to the city. Nobody has done that, not in football. In our era, no one has actually done that. I think that would be so big for a team from the city. Not just to have the chance to play in the state championship, but to win.”

Atlanta Public Schools Athletic Director Jasper Jewell is more than aware of the success the Mays football program has had over the last few seasons, and see’s the same strengths implemented throughout the rest of the APS programs.

“A lot of our coaches give coach Battle a call,” said Jewell. “Just to emulate and pick up ideas and see what he does in terms of offseason conditioning and what he does in week-to-week preparation. How he prepares his athletes. They all want to see their program get to that level and get to that standard. It’s permeating throughout APS. I see a lot of coaches that pick his brain, and go over and talk to him to see what is that actual winning formula that he has so that their programs can get to that level as well.”

While a championship win by the Raiders would bode well the Mays program, the state title would also prove meaningful to all APS programs. A win by one team is more so a win for the whole district. 

“We’ve been blessed to have some success in recent years in track and field, as well as basketball” said Jewell. “We’ve won five state championships in basketball in the last three years. For Mays to break through and win a state title in football, it would be huge for the entire district as a whole. We haven’t celebrated a football state championship in 47 years. That would be a huge deal for not only Mays, but for the district as a whole. Mays has raised the standards for all teams in APS. I think that will raise the level of play for all of our schools. While all our schools are competitive in nature, they look up to Mays as kind of the big brother to carry the torch. They look and see what they’re doing and how they’re doings things and measure their season based on it. If schools in APS are doing that I can only imagine what other competitors are doing. That’s why I’m so excited that Mays in going into a new region next year with perennial powerhouses such as Hapeville Charter, Marist and Stephenson. It’s going to make for some very exciting football and I’m looking forward to it in so many ways.”

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