By Alex Norman

In 2018 the Bearden Bulldogs were one of the best high school football teams in East Tennessee. They went 8-2 while playing in the competitive Region 1-6A. A win over rival Farragut had their fans hoping for a deep postseason run.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the tiebreaker gods were unkind. Going 4-2 in region play meant a 3-way tie with Science Hill and Hardin Valley Academy. Losses to both of those teams put the Bulldogs in fourth place and earned them a trip to Blount County to face perennial powerhouse Maryville.

Bearden lost that matchup 28-7, ending their season at 8-3. But head coach Bearden head Morgan Shinlever isn’t making excuses.

“We had one of best first round matchups in the state,” Shinlever told me at a recent Bulldogs spring practice. “It was 9-1 vs 8-2. The tiebreaker didn’t go our way, but we were too inconsistent in two of those ballgames and that dropped us to a four seed. To be honest, other that one game late in season (at Hardin Valley) the only game lost was due to a four minute stretch in one game (vs. Science Hill) and it cost us dearly.”

In the fall it will be Shinlever’s sixth season running the Bulldogs program. Progress continues in west Knoxville.

“We’ve made strides each year,” said Shinlever. “Last year was the first that I felt Bearden was playing at a level it should be. We competed for a region championship, but fell short. Obviously that was not our goal. We wanted to win and host a first round playoff game, but we won eight games and that is where Bearden should be. We should always be winning 7-9 games in the regular season. That should be the standard, and then a playoff push.”

Looking to the fall, the Bulldogs have to find some answers up front. Bearden has to replace its entire front four on defense, plus the top three backups. Bearden likely will see some lineman playing both ways.

“We are bringing in kids that have been in program for a couple of years that have gotten playing time and meaningful minutes in ballgames, so we feel comfortable about what is coming up… but the biggest question mark is on the offensive and defensive lines.”

On offense, the Bulldogs bring back quarterback Collin Ironside for his senior year. As a freshman, Ironside started Bearden’s fourth game of the season, and has been the starter ever since.

“Collin is a lead by example type guy,” said Shinlever. “He brings experiences. He is physically imposing at 190-195 pounds and a nearly 6’3 frame. He looks the part of a football player. If you get a kid that is not only a hard worker but has a head on his shoulders like Collin, then you have a strong leader on your offensive unit. When you have got that much experience you feel confident with what you are able to do offensively.”

The Bulldogs will dearly miss Caleb Wilkins, who played linebacker, running back and even punted for Bearden. His graduation leaves a hole that they’ll likely need a few players to fill.