Hatmaker named new head football coach

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By Chuck Jones

It’s an often-used cliché in sports about being in the right place at the right time. When it comes to Tony Hatmaker, that wasn’t just a line, but an opportunity to return to the place where he starred as a player.

Hatmaker was named the LaRue County football coach Thursday, returning to his roots. Hatmaker, who played football and baseball for the Hawks, replaces Josh Jaggers, who resigned in December.

“As I went through the process, the excitement has really grown,” Hatmaker said Saturday morning before a meet-and-greet with the new coach. “This is the place I call home. This was the right time for my family, this was the right time for the program and this was the right time for the administration. I’m pretty excited about the opportunity.”

Hatmaker, a 1988 LaRue County graduate, said he has received plenty of texts and calls since he took the job. He still has friends and family, including his mother, Mary Ann, in the area, which he said “you can’t put a value on that.” Hatmaker is looking forward raising his family in the same community where he grew up. Hatmaker and wife, Laura, have two sons — Abe (7) and Ty (5) — and are expecting their third child in July.

He becomes the eighth LaRue County graduate to become a current coach at the school, joining Paul Childress (boys’ basketball), Travis Wootton (girls’ basketball), Eric Allen (baseball), Justin Craft (golf), Allison McDowell (girls’ tennis), Terry Caven (boys’ tennis) and Eric Burrell (wrestling).

“A lot of people have different philosophies when it comes to hiring coaches,” said LaRue County athletic director David Dawson, who roomed with Hatmaker at Union College for a year. “For me, I like hiring people who went here. It’s never been a problem. There’s a comfort here. I’m confident with them. We’ve had good success here hiring people from here, and I think a lot to do with it is their passion to want to see their alma mater succeed.”

Childress believes Hatmaker will make an immediate impact.

“He’s a real good friend of mine,” said Childress, who graduated the same year as Hatmaker. “You won’t find a better guy than Tony. He’s worked his butt off to get to where he is. He’s going to work hard and he’s going to do things the right way. It’s a tremendous hire for our school and I think he’ll help rekindle that school pride.”

Hatmaker has spent the last two decades in the college ranks, outside of the 2004 season where he served as the defensive coordinator at North Gwinnett High School in Georgia. He was at Southeastern Louisiana for the next two years as the assistant head coach before spending the last seven at Eastern Kentucky University.

He became the defensive backs coach in 2008 and then was promoted to defensive coordinator in 2011, while still handling the defensive backs. The Colonels ranked first in the Ohio Valley Conference in scoring defense and turnovers forced in 2011 and ‘12.

“I don’t see it as a challenge,” Hatmaker said of transitioning from college to high school. “Now there are things we don’t have here that we had there. I don’t see that as a problem. It’s not as important as what we do have. We have great people, we have great support and we have a young football team which is hungry. The challenges are like any other.”

Dawson said the school received plenty of interest in the job, with 15 strong candidates. The four-person committee narrowed the pool, interviewing five candidates before selecting Hatmaker.

“I think his ability to communicate with his staff and players is what stood out,” he said. “He has the ability to get the most out of people. He has a vast football knowledge. He’s highly organized. I think this job was intriguing to him for many reasons and I think it’s great for LaRue County.”

The Hawks are coming off a 2-9 season, ending it on a five-game losing streak, including a 42-13 loss at Corbin in the first round of the Class 3-A state playoffs. Hatmaker said there isn’t any magical formula for turning the program around which has had only two winning seasons since 2006.

“The game is pretty simple,” Hatmaker said. “It comes down to blocking, tackling, preparation and a lot of hard work. The players have to be willing to have a team-above-self mentality. When you do that, incredible things can happen.”

Hatmaker wants to implement an attacking style on defense. He said he has used different schemes at Eastern Kentucky based on his personnel, some man-driven and some zone blitz-driven. Hatmaker believes the keys defensively are stopping the run and forcing turnovers, which the Colonels did well during his tenure.

“We’ve got to be great tacklers and we have to be physical at the point of the attack,” Hatmaker said of defense.

Although his background is extensively on the defensive side of the ball, Hatmaker plans to use an up-tempo attack. He said he wants to play fast and control the pace. The Hawks will have a spread mentality, but Hatmaker said there are different ways to go about it.

“No matter what we run we have to be able to run the football when we need to,” Hatmaker said.

Hatmaker’s top priority is filling out his staff. He has begun to meet with assistants from last year’s staff, but he admits he has some flexibility to bring in coaches from outside the program. Hatmaker said he will likely call the defense next season, but that won’t be decided until the staff is completed.

Dawson and Hatmaker said the hiring comes at a good time as Hatmaker will be able to work with the team during the spring to begin putting in his schemes.

The Hawks have a strong core of young players. Junior Marquis Franklin led the team in rushing with 889 yards and nine touchdowns, while freshman Bryson Cobb rushed for 319 yards and one score. Sophomore Justice Harrison led the team in tackles with 58, while Franklin was second with 52.

Freshmen Brandon Cecil, Kane Harris, Shane King, Dane Milby, Chase Puyear, Travis Wallace and Cobb and sophomores Alex Best, Seth DeVary, Justice Harrison and Matt Underwood not only have played this season, but have been counted on in major roles. Jaggers expected to not start a freshman next season after the Hawks started at least two each of the past three years. The middle school team is coming off consecutive conference finals appearances.

“We want to be a top-10 team in the state at the 3-A level,” Hatmaker said. “That’s going to be difficult. From top to bottom, it’s probably the most difficult class in the state. Our goal is to complete and win that first state championship for LaRue County. It’s going to be a long road and we have a lot of hard work ahead of us, but it’s that’s what our goal is.”