(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series with high school head coaches taking a look at changes over the last decade. The article, along with photos and graphics, appeared in the Sunday print edition, as well as the newsstand and complete online e-edition. The second part, with the same coaches reflecting on their fondest memories during that time, will appear in the Wednesday edition.)

MOREHEAD CITY — High School sports in the county changed over the last decade, often for the better but sometimes for the worse.

Classifications were realigned, conferences redrawn and rules altered. Ultimately, safety was the biggest priority for the state as concussion research shifted the way head injuries were treated both on the field and in the recovery that follows.

The News-Times spoke to nine head coaches from the three county high schools who have eclipsed or are very close to reaching the 10-year mark with their respective programs.

They are East Carteret soccer coach Antonio Diaz (21 years), West Carteret cross country coach Shelton Mayo (19), East Carteret tennis coach Nick Theuner (15), Croatan soccer coach Paul Slater (14), Croatan football and girls basketball coach Andrew Gurley (13), West Carteret volleyball coach Michael Turner (12), West Carteret softball coach John Barnes (12 years), East Carteret wrestling coach Harrison Smith (10) and West Carteret football coach Daniel Barrow (9). 

Safety

Changes in approach to safety were felt in every sport, but most notably in football.

“I remember when I first got into coaching, many people would teach blockers to use ‘the triangle,’ which is your hands and head,” Barrow said. “They would throw you in jail for trying to teach that now.”

The first sniff of change at the institutional level came in 2011 when then Gov. Beverly Purdue signed the Gfeller-Waller Concussion Awareness Act, the first real state policy on brain trauma addressing high school student-athletes.  

The N.C High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) made moves again in 2015, limiting practice times to a little over two hours and restricting live action contact in practices to just 60 minutes per group per week.  

“Football has become much safer over the past 10 years,” Gurley said. “People have become far more proactive in preventing and treating concussions in the game. Before every season, players, coaches and parents have to read and sign off that they read the Gfeller-Waller concussion information sheet. Coaches have to take a course on signs and symptoms of a concussion before each season. There is a concussion protocol that has to be performed before an athlete can return to play, which wasn’t the case 10 to 15 years ago.”

On the national level in 2013, the NFL and more than 4,500 ex-players agreed to a $765 million court settlement over the league’s handling of concussions in previous decades. In 2015, the NCAA’s five autonomous conferences – the Atlantic Coast (ACC), Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern (SEC) – passed sweeping concussion safety protocol legislation.  

 “Let’s be honest, the word concussion is a scary word, but it is something that we need to take very seriously,” Gurley said. “We work tackling every day but rarely do it live. There are so many ways to teach proper tackling and safety without going 11 on 11 every time. In all, we teach our players to tackle the same way I learned in the 1990s.  That is because it was the safe and right way then, and it is the safe and right way now.  The important thing is that it is taught.  Don’t assume your players know how to tackle.  You have to show them proper head placement and proper body placement.”

Changes in policy resulted in improvements in equipment, such as raising the minimum testing requirements set by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment.

“Football helmets have a 10-year life span,” Gurley said. “If you look at a helmet that was used 10 years ago and compare it to a helmet used today, it is amazing the difference between the two.  Overall, the equipment is so much nicer.  It’s amazing to see the changes being made in order to keep players as safe as possible.”

New policies on head injuries have affected other sports too, such as wrestling. This year, for the first time ever, safety has been prioritized by separating head injury recovery time from standard injury time, which would otherwise force grapplers to forfeit a match if they cannot recover in time.

Reclassification

As if the odds weren’t already stacked against rural high school programs, the NCHSAA’s 2017-2021 reclassification was an unfavorable one for county teams.

The previous classification system, from 2013-2017, split the state’s schools into four even groups of 25 percent. The new policy created a 20-30-30-20 split based on enrollment numbers. The top 20 percent of the NCHSAA’s 417 member schools were classified as 4A, the next 30 percent as 3A, the next 30 percent as 2A and the remaining 20 percent as 1A.

The new format created a steep disadvantage for 2A and 3A championship contenders, particularly those on the smaller end of average daily membership (ADM) or outside of a densely populated market.

“The way they do the classification now for cross country and all sports makes no sense to me,” Mayo said. “Twenty-five percent for each classification was a better way to do it. 4A was always the toughest, and now there are 3A and 2A teams and individuals at the state meet that are quicker.”

The steep change in competition is evident in the results. West senior Jenna Reiter, for instance, placed seventh at the 3A championship this season with a time of 18 minutes, 16.69 seconds, a finish that would have been good enough for first place in  3A in 2014 and 2015 and second in 2016, the last three years before the current reclassification. Her time would have been good enough for second in 4A this fall.

The NCHSAA, per its own report, also faced an increase in schools looking to reclassify at the mid-point in 2019 with 15 filing a formal appeal, more than twice the number that requested a change in 2014, the midpoint of the last cycle. All 15 teams were either classified as 2A or 3A.

The NCHSAA heard a proposal this fall on the possibility of adding a 5A classification, but a final decision has not yet been made.

“I think the NCHSAA will do something different with the way they classify the schools, like five classifications divided 20 percent each,” Mayo said. “I also think they will come up with a formula for the charter and private schools to make it more balanced for the traditional public schools.”

Reclassification also led to changes in conferences. West Carteret remained in its longtime 3A Coastal, but Croatan left the 2A East Central Conference and the 1A Coastal Plain Conference, in which East Carteret was a member, dissipated. Instead, the two joined up in the newly formed 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference in 2017.

Participation

According to a report released by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) in August, high school sports participation in 2018 showed the first decline in 30 years.

The report said 8 million students took part in high school sports in 2018, a full 43,000 less than 2017. Seventy-percent of that group came from high school football, but that change hasn’t been reflected in the county’s program numbers.

“Our participation has remained pretty steady despite our school being down nearly 100 students since I arrived,” Barrow said.

The sudden decline in participation in 2018 doesn’t necessarily signal a decrease in overall numbers. Per the same report, there were 4.5 million prep athletes in 2019, the third-highest in national history and nearly triple the 1.84 million prep athletes that existed in 1988.

“As is typical of any small school, there are ups and downs, but I have not seen a dramatic decrease in participation,” East soccer coach Antonio Diaz said. “High school sports are very demanding, but the participation has remained steady for the East soccer programs.”

Diaz is one of the fortunate ones at the 1A level enjoying stable numbers annually. Soccer is no longer a burgeoning sport. It’s the fourth most popular prep sport for girls and fifth most for boys in the country, according to the NFHS.

Decline has been felt in a number of sports, but there has been a marked increase in cross-gender participation, such as male volleyball teams or female wrestlers. In 2019, the NCHSAA saw 87 female grapplers participate in the first-ever Women’s Wrestling Invitational Tournament in Winston-Salem.

“I am excited to see the growth in girls wrestling and hope the NCHSAA decides to make it a full sport,” said East wrestling coach Harrison Smith said. “Participation is growing, even locally.”

Sports such as male wrestling, which has existed at the high school level since World War II but is only the seventh most popular sport of choice for high school boys, face participation challenges in rural areas. The 1A classification had only 16 teams in its dual team state playoffs, opposed to 32 for 3A.

Rural 1A teams like East Carteret depend highly on their middle school and feeder programs to stay abreast of the competition.

“Participation in the sport has fluctuated,” Smith said. “We have a new area 1A traditional school (Southside) joining this season. I hope more in the area north of us pick it up. In our school district, the middle school program is the healthiest I have seen it right now, credit to Joe Brake and Peter Carraway.”

Those feeder programs, such as club sports, intramural sports and middle school sports, have opened up new doors to more athletes when they reach high school, particularly females. Over the last 10 years, per the NFHS report, participation in girls sports has increased an average of 38 percent.

“Parks and Recreation leagues and availability of travel club ball are providing opportunities for so many kids,” Turner said. “Before, the only real option for girls seemed to be soccer or dance.  Now so many of our young people, my daughter included, have multiple sports and activities to choose from.”

Barnes added, “I think participation has really increased in the last 10 years, possibly doubled. There has been a greater commitment to travel ball, and sometimes these young ladies play upwards of 100 games per year through various leagues and school ball. Needless to say, the competition is really tough in softball these days.

The vast network of costly club teams on offer has indeed opened new avenues, but it has also affected participation in prep sports. Club soccer, for instance, typically takes place in the fall at the same time as boys soccer.

“Numbers have definitely fluctuated in the past 10 years, especially on the girls side,” Slater said. “One of the things that really stands out is when we have kids who come to us who did not play in middle school but instead played club. Playing for the middle school is not the end all, but there is always someone who shows up who was fully capable of playing and just decided not to play for whatever reason.  School soccer is a very different environment than club.”

Participation in volleyball has increased every year during the past decade, leaving it the second most popular sport for female prep athletes. With the increase in numbers, coaches have been able to focus on finer details of the game.

“Ten years ago, we were teaching basic skills to ninth-graders and some 10th-graders at tryouts and first practices,” Turner said. “Now we are able to install offensive and defensive team concepts during the summer.  Tryouts are practices at full speed.  It certainly helps that we have so many athletes that choose to play year-round, but the access to volleyball at a younger age seems to be having an impact as well.”

Diaz agreed, saying, “There is an increasing attention and work on fitness and tactics. Soccer has developed worldwide, and now it is not a matter of ‘just running and kicking the ball as hard as you can,’ but in the last few years, more emphasis has been put on aspects of the game such as passing ability and play buildup.”

Rules Changes

There have been more than a handful of changes to prep sports over the last decade, most of them minor and largely unnoticed.

But there were also notable changes, such as the approach to head injuries or recruitment practices. The rules governing eligibility of student-athletes were also significantly altered.

In 2013, the NCHSAA approved a policy that forced students who didn’t have a bona fide change in residence to sit out of athletic participation for 365 days. However, per its own report, the new policy allowed individual districts to “create criteria for immediate athletic eligibility.”

The policy looked to curb unfair recruitment and transfer practices, but it also left urban areas like Charlotte, Raleigh/Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem flexibility. The impact was felt across all sports as charter schools and private institutions saw immediate improvement.

“North Carolina has become one of the strongest cross country states (over the last decade),” Mayo said, “but private schools and charter schools have been allowed into the mix, which has made big changes for the sport.

The East Carteret boys basketball team saw the short end of that exchange in a run of three straight regional final appearances between the 2012-2013 season and 2014-2015. It won a state title in 2015, but fell in the 2014 championship game to Winston-Salem Prep and lost in the 2013 regional final to Rocky Mount Prep. It also reached the fourth round in 2016 before falling to Voyager Academy (Durham).

The impact of non-traditional high schools has been felt strongest at the 1A level and in myriad sports.

“I would like to see charter school regional and state tournaments,” Smith said. “They are growing, and they need their own division so as to ensure equity and fairness. I am happy for any successful wrestler or wrestling team because the work these young men and women put in is tremendous. However, 1A traditional schools need a fair pathway in the postseason.”

Diaz added, “I would like to see non-traditional schools competing in a bracket of their own in the state playoffs. It would be beneficial and fairer for small traditional schools.”

There were also rules changes internally with most sports, wrestling included. In 2011, the lineup of 103 pounds, 112 pounds and 119 pounds changed to 106, 113 and 120, respectively.

“This gave one more heavy weight class (182 pounds) at the expense of losing a smaller middle weight class (135),” Smith said. “This has helped schools fill classes.”

Soccer saw two major rules changes during the decade, each affecting programs in their own way. In 2012, the NCHSAA introduced a mercy rule, calling for matches with a nine-goal difference to end at halftime or when the margin is reached in the second half.

“Before it was introduced, there were some scores that were embarrassing for the losing team,” Diaz said. “At the high school level, those embarrassing scores are not necessary, so I was happy when the rule was passed.”

Whereas the mercy rule looked to curb unnecessarily long, one-sided matches, a new end-of-game penalty kick policy introduced in 2018 sought to do the same for tied conference matches after regulation. Ties, even after overtime periods, were nixed in favor of penalty-kick shootouts under the new rule.

“In the last 10 years, the biggest change has clearly been the PK rule for tied conference games,” Slater said. “People who don't know the game and felt they could improve it have created a problem for soccer.”

Future Changes

Change is inevitable, and while the face of prep sports in this county has remained largely familiar, there is no telling what will happen in the next one.

“There are some significant changes (in football) that are on the forefront that might be made final during the next 10-year period,” Barrow said. “The main one that comes to mind is eliminating the kickoff. In the pro game, you are not allowed to form more than a two-man wedge on kick returns. In college, you can fair catch a kickoff now and automatically receive the ball at the 25-yard line.  These are changes that have not made its way down to the high school level yet, but I can see that being a possibility.”

Such drastic changes in football could lead to an uptick in participation rather than the decline the sport has season over the last decade. The NFHS reports prep football participation is at its lowest since the 1999-2000 season.

“I would like to see the game continue to evolve and grow over the next decade,” Gurley said. “I would like to see people stop viewing football with a stereotypical mindset.  I would love to see more coaches willing to teach proper technique and have players safety and love for the game at the top of their list. We are trying to grow the game in this area by teaching young players the right way to tackle, the right way to block, and by doing this, you show them and the parents how fun the game can be instead of leading them in wrong direction.”

If Theuner has anything to say about the future, it will hold six-court facilities at the county’s high schools. Currently, all three schools lack full facilities and must travel to Fort Benjamin Park in Newport, a suitable site but one that is six miles from West, nine from Croatan and 17 from East.

“(There are) four public courts east of Morehead City, six in Morehead City, six in Newport, three in Cedar Point and only three practice courts at each High School,” Theuner said. “And all three high school practice facilities are in desperate need of repair. Tennis numbers at East have been very good in spite of having to practice and play off campus, although we have had some prospective players not participate due to the extra travel requirements the last four seasons.”

As sports gain popularity, new venues will always be in need, in addition to new feeder programs and more options for jayvee-level student-athletes.

“I'd love to see an auxiliary gym built at West Carteret,” Turner said. “I'd love to see our middle schools have more than one team for their sports programs.  I'd love to see West Carteret be able to run a ninth-grade team, as well as jayvee and varsity teams.  We will have clean uniforms and a qualified bus driver for at least part of it.”

While some seek a better, more cost-effective venue, others fear for the advancement of their sport in light of competition from non-scholastic programs.

“I am concerned about the growth of the game locally and nationally,” Slater said. “The pay-to-play system is making it very difficult for the game to grow to what we are capable of as a nation.”

Still others would prefer to see a reversal in the decline of youth sports, which saw an overall decline of 14 percent between 2015-2017, per a study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

“It would be great to see youth football in this county grow,” Barrow said. “The Newport Vikings do a tremendous job. I would love to see Beaufort, Morehead City and Cape Carteret develop similar programs.  More kids playing, more teams, more options as far as the type of football played (flag, eight-man, etc.). That, however, takes a huge commitment from a handful of volunteers.”

Changes in equipment are inevitable, as are safety and workload management regulations in light of new research.

“I would like to see our youth players cut back on the games they play at an early age, particularly 8-14,” Barnes said. “I think we have them play too many games these days. Instead, I’d like to see them protect their bodies and take better care of their bodies better. I also expect to see more bat regulation in the near future.”

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