MOUNT ZION — When Ashton Summers woke up on the morning of Aug. 24, 2018, he was shaking with nerves.
He knew that later that evening he would trot out as Mount Zion's starting quarterback as just a sophomore with exactly one year of playing the position under his belt. He had planned for the moment after finishing his freshman season on the junior varsity team. The varsity starting spot was there for the taking if only he could capitalize.
He buried himself in film and in the weight room, threw with his wide receivers in the offseason and won the starting spot outright, but still, he was nervous. He threw for 110 yards, no touchdowns and three interception in his first varsity game, a home win against Bartonville Limestone.
Nothing about how Summers approached this year's season-opening win against Highland resembled last year. He was confident and in control of the system he's worked tirelessly to learn. He sprayed the ball around and showed that the Braves' offense, in addition to a talented group of receivers and standout running back Sage Davis, was different. They can score to compliment a stingy defense.
Things are slower for Summers in his second season.
“I just feel it during the games," he said. "It was so fast, I was so nervous (last year) and now I’m just kind of calm, cool and collected.
"Against Highland I was kind of more relaxed. I was like, ‘I know what to expect. I just have to perform and do my job and trust the other 10 people.’"
Ten starts later, Summers, a junior, has Mount Zion 2-0 ahead of Friday's 7 p.m. home opener against Charleston. He's thrown for 396 yards and two touchdowns on 26-of-40 passing with an interception.
“Honestly, it’s kind of incredible," senior wide receiver Jayse Booker said. "He’s a smart guy, he works really hard. The jump has been crazy. I think it’s confidence. Last year he was probably a little scared. He’s a lot more confident now and he’s looking pretty good."
Summers has been through the ringer already. He threw for 1,007 yards, five touchdowns and six interceptions last season before the Braves lost to a traditionally strong Cahokia team in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs. Summers got battered. Cahokia played press coverage on his receivers all game, leaving a small window for him to try to deliver the perfect pass — if he had time. He got hit and bruised by the defense, but popped right back up. Mount Zion coach Patrick Etherton learned a thing or two about his quarterback, and his team, in that game.
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A week before that though, in a Week 9 win against Troy Triad, Summers started to settle in. Triad was stuffing the run. Etherton and Summers both knew Mount Zion had to move the ball through the air, and Summers connected for 174 passing yards and an interception in the win.
“That’s when I realized, ‘OK, I can do this,'" Summers said.
Etherton admitted that last year he had to dial back the offense. Summers was young and, though he had dedicated an offseason to the position, was still relatively new to the position and very new to the speed of the varsity game.
Not this year. Etherton has opened things up, thanks in large part to Summers' knowledge of the offense.
“He gets it," Etherton said. "He has an understanding of what we’re trying to do when we call plays, how we call them, what we’re looking at, who our reads are and then he translates it on the field. He’s done a good job.
“His learning curve from Week 1 of last year to Week 1 of this year is dramatic."
Summers spends between a half hour and an hour every night at home watching film and sneaks in a few clips during the day when he gets a chance. He understands why Mount Zion calls certain plays and how those play calls fit within the framework of what a defense is doing.
“Before the play, I have a pretty good idea of who I’m throwing to, based on the defense," he said. "When that happens I’m not surprised."
The surprises are gone in his second year as the starting quarterback. It's just football now, and relying on the timing and work he picked up throwing to his teammates in the summer and a commitment to film.
Taking care of business on the road against strong, Class 5A teams, doesn't hurt, either.
“There’s a little swagger to him now," Booker said. "He’s got a year under his belt. He kind of knows how everything goes now. It’s easy."