By Earl Vaughan Jr.
High school football season in North Carolina, COVID-19 style, officially began Monday, as Cumberland County joined schools across the state for the first official date of pandemic-delayed spring football season.
All the county coaches contacted by CityView expressed concerns. They’ve been away from their players for an extended period since the pandemic hit in mid-March of 2020, and they’ve been given less than three weeks of workouts. They’ve had even less time for their players to practice in full equipment as they prepare for an abbreviated seven-week season that will kick off on Feb. 26.
Another concern county-wide was a drop in participation. The best turnouts at any of the 10 schools numbered in the low 60s. There were others with less than 50 players and at least one, Douglas Byrd, with a turnout that made the possibility of fielding a team doubtful.
COVID-19 protocols will be in place everywhere during the season. Locker room occupancy for dressing is limited to 10 players at a time.
Both the locker rooms and the player equipment must be frequently sanitized.
In addition to regular safety equipment like helmets and mouthpieces, players will have to wear a mask, which means breathing will be even more challenging while increasing the need for substitute players.
Coaches are required to perform daily check-ins with their players to take temperatures and ask a series of questions about their health and possible exposure to someone with COVID.
As veteran Pine Forest coach Bill Sochovka noted, it’s required him to add an additional duty for one of his coaches. For years, high school football teams have had a so-called “get back” coach who warns the players during a game not to step outside the team box on the sidelines onto the playing field.
Now, Sochovka said, he has a COVID coach as well to monitor all the protocols needed to prevent spread of the disease.
Most fans won’t even get to see games in person as crowds will be limited to 100 fans for the home team by mandate of Gov. Roy Cooper. Those will primarily be the parents of players who have access to a special code that will allow them to purchase digital tickets to the games.
No tickets will be sold at the game sites.
Games will be streamed live via the NFHS Network, with a monthly subscription available for $10.99. That also will give the subscriber access to other livestreamed athletic events involving county schools via the same network.
With all that as a preamble, here’s a capsule look at the turnout on the first day of practice for the county schools.
Jack Britt head coach Brian Randolph welcomed 55 players to the first practice and said another 10 or so players are currently either quarantined or playing basketball for the Buccaneers and are expected to join the team later.
Randolph said his main focus is on having his team in shape and making sure they can communicate on the field. He’s concerned about play calls being misunderstood because voices will be muffled when players wear masks during games.
“We have to figure a way to help with communication,’’ he said. “Miscommunication is as bad as no communication at all.’’
Among the top returnees for the Bucs are linebacker Isaiah Mercado and defensive lineman Amarie Daniels.
Also back are defensive lineman Corey Hutcherson, defensive back Athalio Liscano, offensive lineman Brandon Johnson and wide receiver Maurice Wickware.
Dueling for the quarterback position are Caleb Locklear and Dymere Edwards.
Randolph said the offensive and defensive lines are critical for the Bucs as they lost a total of seven starters there.
“It’s going to be a difficult situation if you can’t control the line of scrimmage,’’ Randolph said. “We have to be in shape.’’
Dave Watson, the Eagles’ interim head coach, faces the biggest challenge of all the county coaches. Taking over just days before practice started after Byrd administration dismissed former head coach Mike Paroli, Watson only had 18 players at the first practice.
“Most of them are freshmen and sophomores,’’ Watson said. “There are a lot of hurdles we’ve got to get over, and mountains we’ve got to move to get them out.’’
Top veterans back for the Eagles are wide receiver and defensive back Glendell Herring and lineman Zyon McEachin.
“We’ve got to be able to lay a foundation that will carry over into the fall,’’ Watson said.
“We are trying to get kids out, but at this point we’ve got to get them in shape, and it will take time.’’
Cape Fear coach Jake Thomas was pleasantly surprised when nearly all of the players who’ve attended off-season workouts for the Colts, roughly 50, showed up for the opening day of practice.
Among the top returners was quarterback Ki’mani Britton. Other promising players are linemen Chason Bryant and Chris Krings.
Defensive back Jonathan Miller and receiver Isaiah Lee are also back.
Newcomers include Landon Sargent and Cole Wilson, the latter a quarterback prospect.
Some veterans still playing basketball include receiver Micah Nelson and linebacker Ricky McDonald.
While he’s happy with his skill players, Thomas said the lines need to come together quickly for Cape Fear to be successful.
“If the up front linemen come together, we’ll be pretty successful,’’ Thomas said.
There was one big absentee among the 60 players Bear coach David Lovette welcomed to practice Monday, but Lovette knows where he is.
Star running back Jerry Garcia Jr. is with the Gray’s Creek basketball team until that season ends.
Garcia is the county’s leading returning rusher with 2,085 yards in 2019 and 23 touchdowns. He averaged a whopping 10.3 yards per rush.
Another returnee is Jackson Sterling, who saw action at quarterback for the Bears when Lovette’s son Ben was injured in 2019. “He’s a senior and very competent,’’ Lovette said.
Another veteran back is Garrett Crockett, offensive line, who has signed with Davidson. Robert Burks is expected to be a leader at strong safety. Jalen Johnson is being recruited as a defensive lineman.
A promising newcomer is Armer Mitchell, who is listed as a running back and defensive back.
Sochovka had 62 players at his first practice.
Like many coaches, he knows there are a lot more freshmen out there who didn’t show up. He thinks the reasons are some parents decided to hold their children out this year because of COVID-19 or they had no way to get to practice since parents are working and can’t drive them.
Experienced returners include linemen Isaiah Potts and Xavier Johnson.
Sochovka expects a quarterback battle between Kuili Badman and Kyshun Taylor.
Blake Paul is a possible two-way player at wide receiver and defensive back.
Like many coaches, Sochovka will be waiting on some players to come out after basketball. They include defensive back Justin Eglain and running back L.J. Williams.
Jaylin Wilson, recovered from a concussion that sidelined him much of last season, is back at running back and slot back.
“I like our skill positions,’’ Sochovka said. “Defensive line is going to be much better.’’
With only 55 players out for his first practice, Bulldog head coach Bruce McClelland has already made the decision not to field a junior varsity team this season.
“We’ll start 12 or 14 freshmen and sophomores on the varsity,’’ he said.
Like all the schools, McClelland said the Bulldogs have been hurt by not being able to hold 7-on-7 pass skeletons in the offseason, and not being able to get into the weight room for strength conditioning because of COVID restrictions.
Most of Terry Sanford’s veterans are on the line, including Elijah Robinson, Jaquan Shepard and Jarvis Higgins-Simmons.
Other defenders returning include defensive back Sequan Smith and Barnes Smith at linebacker.
Providing leadership in the offensive line are Haydan Honeycutt and Brandon Roye.
Three players are battling at quarterback. They include Cruise Herz, Mykel McGill and Dante Garcia. “They all bring something different to the table,’’ McClelland said of the trio.
Falcon head coach Duran McLaurin had 54 players at his first practice Monday. He said the turnout was lower because the pandemic has kept him from being able to communicate with younger players he would usually see in the hallways at school.
Veterans who did show up include wide receiver Trevon Bolden, along with offensive linemen Jaysiah Leach, Isaac Jackson, Jaevonte Lindsey and Jaelon McDonald.
Top defenders back include Tylon Shropshire at tackle and Will Martinez at linebacker.
McLaurin’s biggest concern is that most of his team’s rivals in the Sandhills Athletic Conference are from non-Cumberland County Schools that have been allowed more access to off-season workouts than the county schools due to COVID restrictions.
“Execution is going to be important because we are behind,’’ he said.
First-year coach Andrew Karcher had 33 players at his first practice. He said at least seven likely prospects are still playing basketball for the Golden Bulls.
“We were a little disappointed with our senior turnout,’’ Karcher said, adding that he hopes more of them will come out soon.
Smith’s top prospect is quarterback Dashawn McCullough, the top passer in the county in 2019 with 2,336 yards. Karcher said McCullough is living up to his potential. Daniel Dawson and Khamari Crumpler return as receivers.
Karcher’s biggest concern is getting his offense and defense installed during the truncated preseason.
“I think we have a lot of upside, a lot of potential,’’ he said. “We need to continue to maintain COVID protocols so we can keep moving in the right direction.’’
Coach Rodney Brewington had 62 players at his first workout Monday.
Key returners for the Tigers are led by defensive lineman Michael Herbert, who has signed with West Virginia Wesleyan.
Also back are safety Ahmir Ashley and fullback and linebacker Donta Autry.
The Tigers will be looking to replace a huge loss in multi-talented Matthew Pemberton, who accounted for over 2,000 yards of offense. “We feel we have some kids that can carry the load,’’ Brewington said.
The Tigers also have to rebuild the offensive line. “We’ll be starting four new kids there,’’ Brewington said. “And we’ll be starting a new quarterback.
“We’ve got to gel in the offensive line. By week two or three we’ll be in stride.’’
Wolverine head coach Ernest King had 43 players at the opening workout.
What he lacked in numbers, he made up for in size.
Two of his biggest players back are 6-foot-4, 325-pound lineman Nahala Moore and 6-foot-5, 275-pound Courtney Jones.
King said Moore has received several college offers but has yet to make a decision. Jones is a former basketball player from New York who moves well for his size.
Starting quarterback Josh Jones returns. King said Jones is four inches taller and has added some muscle.
The biggest concern for Westover is defense. The Wolverines gave up 500 points in 2019, allowing 45.1 yards per game.
Linebacker Karic Williams returns, along with Remington Workman.
A pair of transfers should also help, linebacker Twan Anderson from Seventy-First and safety Peyton Schoefield from Florida.