Gerald Barnes and his family spent much of last season with off-field concerns. Now, they have plenty of reasons to look forward to Westside's season opener.
For one, the Patriots' No. 1 fan is expected to return when they play host to Greenbrier on Sept. 1. It will be the first game Barnes' wife, Sissy, has attended since the Greenbrier game last season.
Sissy suffered a stroke following surgery to remove a benign brain tumor on Sept. 6. Since then, she's been making progress.
She can recognize family members and friends. She can hold conversations. She can move her left arm and move her legs at times.
"She's been through a really tough thing. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't hard on the entire family," Barnes said of his wife.
"We've got a long way to go, but you have to remember where you came from."
The same can be said for Westside's football team. The Patriots are trying to return to the success they had during their nine-win seasons of 2001 and 2002. Since then, they've gone 15-17.
Last year, Westside rallied to win its final two games of the regular season to reach the playoffs, where the Patriots lost to Buford in the first round.
At the season's conclusion, senior wide receiver Alex Walker and senior quarterback Melvin Tanksley got together and worked on pass routes and timing.
"We can be very good," Walker said of the passing game. "In seven-on-seven camps, we dominated. If the line holds up, we're going to be deadly."
Tanksley and Walker will be expected to fuel the team's air attack. Last year, Walker averaged 22 yards per catch and had two touchdowns. Tanksley rushed for 500 yards and threw for nine touchdowns. He completed only 42 percent of his passes, but Barnes said his incompletion rate can be attributed to an average of four dropped passes per game.
Westside is known for hard-nosed, ball-control offense. With new offensive coordinator Lyle Burns, Walker wouldn't mind if the team strays from its past philosophy.
"Hopefully, we'll mix it up this year," he said. "Maybe we'll have a more balanced attack."
On defense, the team returns seven starters, but line play is the main concern. The Patriots are loaded at the safety position with Walker (three interceptions) and senior Chris Sanders (85 tackles, nine sacks).
"We're going to be pretty good on defense," Sanders said. "We've got a lot of players who like to hit. We're undersized, but we've got a lot of speed."
Sanders and Walker said the Patriots are dedicating the season to Sissy Barnes. "We think about her all the time," Walker said. "She's our biggest fan.
"It's a miracle. If she can get through that, we can do anything."
Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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