Stephenson running back Ryan Ingram (6) runs the ball while being pursued by Tucker High School's Jonovan Lowe (13), Friday, Nov. 2, 2018, in Clarkston, Ga. BRANDEN CAMP/SPECIAL
Photo: Branden Camp
Photo: Branden Camp

Four Questions with Stephenson head coach Ron Gartrell

GHSF Daily's Four Questions feature historically poses the same questions to a different Georgia head coach each issue. This season, head coaches are being asked Four Questions tailored to current events. Today's interviewee is Stephenson head coach Ron Gartrell, whose team defeated Tucker 30-24 last week in a game that decided the Region 4-AAAAAA championship. It was Stephenson's ninth region title under Gartrell, first since 2015. Stephenson will play Coffee, the 2017 state runner-up, in the first round Friday at Hallford Stadium.

Ron Gartrell, Stephenson head coach 

1. How special was the Tucker victory to you and your program? "We're just excited about getting our program back on track. We hadn't been off the track very long. But Tucker roughed us up pretty good the last couple of years. That's the game that everybody looks forward to. It's a measuring stick. It's good to have a win against a quality opponent. It's great to close out the regular season with a region championship." 

2. How far along is this team on the road to being competitive on the state level again? "If you look at our record this year, I feel like we're there, but when you look at our roster and the kids that we have that are playing a lot, we still have a young football team. We've got a new quarterback who probably would've been starting on JV, but we lost two ahead of him, one to eligibility, one to baseball. We lost our best running back, Deondre Jackson, the second game. He had a knee injury. We keep losing players and have young kids step up and be productive. That's been our rallying cry - next man up. We've got three seniors who play on offense, I think four on defense. The rest are pretty young kids. I don't think they realize what's going on and the season we've had. They just show up for practice and do what we've asked them to do. It's been tough to glue them together, but after Friday, they're a lot closer than I thought they were in terms of how much they care for each other." 

3. Your region is matched up against Region 1, the one that has had the most success in the playoffs the past two years. [Four Region 1 teams have made the semifinals or better the past two seasons, including 2016 champion Valdosta and 2017 champion Lee County.] How do you feel Region 4 will do? "There were three, maybe four, teams in our region that could've won it. Mundy's Mill, our fourth seed, played Tucker extremely well and ended up losing in overtime [36-35]. Lovejoy is extremely tough. We just got the breaks down the stretch to beat them [44-35]. We've had a close race. But as far as Region 1, we've played Valdosta, Colquitt County, Lowndes, all those good teams down there. They're extremely tough. We're not looking at it as a No. 1 [seed] vs. No. 4. It's two really good teams going at it [Stephenson vs. Coffee], and the team that makes the fewest mistakes will probably win." 

4. How about yourself? You've had some health issues the past couple of years. Are you doing OK, and how much longer do you plan to coach? "I did have some issues the past two seasons. I had hip replacement, and things didn't go like they're supposed to. But I always stayed connected to the team, physically and mentally. I just wasn't on the sidelines or at practice as much as I liked. At this point, I'm about 80-85 percent physically. I don't move as well as I used to, but I feel good. I cut my staff this year from 15 coaches down to about seven or eight because I wanted to take more responsibility myself. I wanted to have total control of our offense. I've gotten a kick out of calling the plays again and being creative, and I feel it's worked out well for us this season. I've got an experienced staff, and the coaches are enjoying their roles. At this point in my career, it's a one-year thing most likely. I feel good about this year, then getting started for next year. I'm not saying I can't look farther than that. I'm not saying I'm ready to retire. I'll just take it one year at a time and see what happens.'' [Gartrell's record is 229-118 in 31 seasons as a head coach at Shamrock from 1988 to 1995 and Stephenson since 1996.] 

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