When Will Hester was in seventh or eighth grade, he hunted rabbits with pellet guns in a field where Ravenwood High School now stands.
He grew up in a subdivision across the street from the school and his parents still live in the house they bought there in 1989.
So he really is returning home to coach Ravenwood football for the second time.
“We used to think that part of Brentwood was living way out in the country back in those days,” Hester said. “Everything was one-lane underpasses and you had to honk your horn before you went under the railroad tracks. It just seemed like we were in the middle of nowhere.”
Now, Hester says the east side of Brentwood is “in the middle of everything” as it grows rapidly.
His first stint at Ravenwood was in 2013-15, capped by a Class 6A title.
Hester, 44, inherits a 6-5 team that made it to the second round of the playoffs last year.
“A lot of new faces on the coaching staff and on the team and we’re just trying to jell all that together,” Hester said. “We have the makings of what could be a good team, but the most important part of football is how you come together and the culture that you build, and we’re still in the building stages.”
Hester replaces Matt Daniels, who resigned with a 39-13 record during his four seasons, highlighted by a state runner-up finish in 2019.
Cornerback Myles Pollard, a major-college prospect, will lead the defense. The senior has narrowed his choices to Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia Tech and Washington.
Junior quarterback Chris Parson, a transfer from Red Oak, Texas, who moved back to Brentwood, should give the offense a boost. He already has 16 offers, including Florida State and Tennessee.
Ravenwood moves into the new Region 7-6A with defending 5A champion Summit, Brentwood, Independence, Franklin and Centennial.
“I would put it up against any league in the state in any classification,” Hester said. “Summit returns a bunch of kids off a state championship team. Independence has several very highly recruited players back. Brentwood and Franklin both are very talented teams. Centennial is going to be better.”
Region 7 teams will now face strong opponents from Memphis’ Region 8 in the first round of the playoffs due to TSSAA reclassification.
That means early postseason clashes against teams like Whitehaven, White Station, Bartlett, Germantown and Houston.
“I think it’s gotten infinitely more difficult for a team from our league to make a run into the state championship,” said Hester, who’s 57-50 in 11 seasons.
There will be two other new coaches in the region: Brentwood’s Clint Finch and Franklin’s Alex Melton.
Hester, Finch and Melton are all former Brentwood assistants under Ron Crawford.
The Raptors had gone 8-22 in the three seasons prior to Hester’s arrival in 2013, but he quickly turned things around with a 38-4 run in the next three years, including a state runner-up showing in 2014.
“I think we probably as coaches get a lot more credit for that than we deserve,” Hester said. “In my opinion, it was the hunger of the players and their desire to do something special. At that point, we were kind of the team that was sneaking up on everybody and now the role is kind of reversed.”
Future NFL receivers Van Jefferson (Rams) and Chris Rowland (Falcons) helped spark the quick resurgence.
Ravenwood ended Maryville’s 44-game winning streak in the 2015 final.
A year earlier, Maryville handed Hester his most painful loss, 35-34 in overtime, in the championship.
“We made a decision to go for two in overtime and we lost that game,” Hester said. “The hurt that you see the kids having and to come up just short like that -- I think you remember those tough losses a lot more than the wins.”
Ravenwood is a two-time state champion and three-time state runner-up.
One of Ravenwood fullback Brenden Dickinson’s older sisters went to Ravenwood during Hester’s first stint.
“(She) would tell me about him getting all fired up in the commons on game day, the pep-rally speeches and just getting the whole community behind the high school football games,” Dickinson said. “That was just awesome. You see them on YouTube and on the news.”
Fans were allowed to listen to Hester’s post-game speeches on the field and it got Dickinson excited to play for him someday.
“He’s a big analytical guy, so he has the X’s and O’s part,” Dickinson said. “He likes to have the scheme and all that. He wants everything to be perfect, but then he can get us fired up easy and get everyone on the same page.”
Expectations will remain high under Hester.
“He says anything less than a state championship will be – disappointment isn’t the right word, but the end goal is the state championship,” Dickinson said.
Ravenwood will be looking for contributions from everyone on offense this season.
“Last year our offense was focused around Jake Briningstool, which was necessary, but we kind of don’t have that guy this year so it’s more spread out,” Dickinson said.
Briningstool is entering his freshman season at tight end for Clemson.
Hester coached Florence to a 17-16 record in Alabama’s Class 7A the past three seasons.
He led Florence to the state quarterfinals in 2019, falling 38-31 to eventual state champion Thompson.
“I think (7A) is very similar to playing in Class 6A in the state of Tennessee,” Hester said. “You’re playing the biggest schools that have the most student population to draw the very best players from. I think in Alabama there were more big, physically strong defensive linemen (than Tennessee).”
Hester said there are more schools in Alabama, but they have smaller enrollments than the ones in Tennessee.
He started Nolensville’s football program in 2016 and took them to the second round of the 4A playoffs the following season.
Hester got his first head coaching job at age 29 at LaVergne in 2007, going 9-21 in three seasons with the Wolverines.
“You lean a lot about yourself through adversity and failure,” Hester said. “I truly believe without failures like that, you’re not going to see the true successes that you can see. I think LaVergne helped me grow as a coach.”
He got re-energized as a Brentwood assistant from 2010-12.
Hester lost 220 pounds in 2016 and 2017 after undergoing sleeve gastrectomy surgery to remove a large portion of his stomach.
“Unfortunately, I’ve found a few of those pounds back, but still a lot lighter than I was at the time I started losing,” Hester said.
He played offensive line at Brentwood, graduating in 1995.
“We were the first teams to go back-to-back to the playoffs my junior and senior years,” Hester said.
Now, he will try to make some more postseason runs in his return to Ravenwood.
“I’m super excited, man,” Hester said. “Anytime you can return home it’s a special thing.”