MOREHEAD CITY — Spring football is another sport that has likely gone by the wayside due to the coronavirus pandemic. Summer may be no different.
In normal years, Croatan, West Carteret and East Carteret would be hitting the field to prepare for the fall season. This spring, those programs are playing a waiting game, standing by to see if there will be an opportunity to prepare for the 2020 campaign and wondering if there will even be a season.
Each of the three county coaches – Croatan’s Andrew Gurley, West’s Daniel Barrow and East’s B.J. Frazier – shared that the most difficult aspect of the current situation is the unknown. There is currently no schedule for the high school offseason.
Here is a breakdown of the three county teams as preparations begin for next season:
The Cougars are better situated than most teams to handle these strange times thanks to a veteran and experienced roster that will return 16 starters from a squad that won seven of its last eight games.
Croatan tied the school record for wins in a season with a 9-3 mark and captured the program’s third county championship with victories over West and East. Unfortunately, after the season, the team discovered it had used an ineligible player and had to vacate four wins from its stellar year, knocking its official record to 5-7.
“We’ve got a pretty experienced team, so I think we will be able to catch up when we’re allowed to get back out there,” coach Andrew Gurley said. “If you are team that is rebuilding, I couldn’t imagine trying to start over with this thing going on. It would be tough. We have great technology, but it’s hard to simulate being together.”
Gurley said the team would normally work out three days a week in the spring and then go three days a week during June and July, adding up to more than 40 workouts that are used to install the entire playbook before the first official practice Aug. 1.
“Those add up,” he said. “We’d be in the middle of spring ball right now. It sucks cause you think about all that time you are usually getting with the guys. By the time we get together for the first practice, we are ready to fine-tune things and get ready for the first game.”
The Cougars have seen a good turnout in the previous three springs, averaging more than 30 players. That doesn’t include the rising freshmen currently in middle school. One of the many drawbacks of not working out early in the offseason is the inability to connect with the Broad Creek Middle School eighth-graders.
“I’ve reached out and emailed them,” Gurley said. “It’s tough. This is the time of year when I would be meeting with them and getting them ready, so we’re not getting them in the mix as quickly as you would like to.”
The big spring numbers in the past could account for the program’s recent improvement. After starting his head coaching career two years ago with four straight losses, Gurley has led the team to a 15-5 record on the field.
“I’ve been going back and watching film from last year,” he said. “I see where we can improve. We can change some things, get better. Just being another year older, you hope the experience pay soff, and you hope we’ll get stronger.”
The entire backfield returns, including quarterback Dustin Hayden and running backs Colton Sullivan, Alex Barnes and J.J. Pritchett. The four combined for 2,911 rushing yards and 41 rushing touchdowns. Sullivan was named News-Times Player of the Year after rushing for 1,030 yards and 16 touchdowns.
“We’ve got seven starters back on offense, including all of our skill guys,” Gurley said. “We lose some linemen, but I’m excited about this group. We’ve got some good young talent, like Matt Finizio and Will Rouse.”
The team should be even more experienced on defense with nine starters returning, including Connor McLeod, who led the team with 71 tackles to go with nine tackles for loss, and Dakota Gay, who led the team with 12 tackles for loss to go with 57 tackles and four sacks.
The senior class of 14 will be the biggest senior class since the 14-member group of 2017.
“It would break my heart if they don’t get a chance to play,” Gurley said. “We already saw that with the seniors in the spring. It’s just hard not knowing. I wish we knew, and maybe we will know something soon. I like to have control, so this is difficult, because it is out of our hands.”
The soon-to-be third-year coach is keeping up with his players, reaching out to them once a week, and sending out workout ideas.
“I hope they are staying active,” he said. “But I don’t bother them too much. I want them to focus on their schoolwork, because that is something else they have to juggle now. It can be tougher to focus doing schoolwork at home. There are a lot more distractions than sitting in a classroom.”
And while the student-athletes are getting used to a steady diet of distance learning for school, it may also carry over for them to the sports world if coaches and players can’t meet in person this summer.
“We do Google Meet for teachers, and we’ll do that for coaches as well,” Gurley said. “I record myself doing math problems on my tablet for school so I thought I could do that to help install our offense and defense. And Hudl has a lot of good things you can do with video clips.”
The offseason is a time to increase strength and speed through weightlifting, improve technique and fundamentals, and learn the offense and defense.
It’s also a time to create culture while players bond. But Gurley said developing positive team chemistry shouldn’t be a problem.
“Everyone is going to be so excited to get back,” he said. “We have a team saying every year. Two years ago it was “Finish” and it was ‘All In’ last year. When we get back, I think we’ll focus on how lucky we are, because something like this helps you appreciate things you took for granted.”
If any team could use a normal offseason of work, it’s the Patriots.
They lost nearly half their roster from a squad that went 4-7. Six of those defeats came by more than 39 points.
“We were out of most of those games by the second quarter,” Barrow said. “We should have a much better team, but I don’t know if that translates to wins. We’ll still have a tough schedule.”
West will retain its brutal 2019 schedule, playing in the always tough 3A Coastal Conference while scheduling a nonconference slate that includes New Hanover, West Craven, D.H. Conley, Croatan, Farmville Central and East Carteret. The Patriots played five teams that won at least nine games, including New Hanover (13-2), Havelock (11-2), West Craven (10-4), Croatan (9-3) and D.H. Conley (9-4).
Thankfully, help is on the way. A junior varsity roster that numbered nearly 50 should provide plenty of talent from a team that went 8-2.
“They got so much better as the season went on,” Barrrow said. “They are a fun group to be around. They will contribute. There will be a learning curve. There always is when you make that jump from JV to varsity, but they will get used to it.”
West will also be aided by an infusion of talent from Newport Middle School, which took the Crystal Coast Athletic Conference championship game with a 30-0 win over Beaufort-Down East.
“Newport usually gives us some big linemen,” Barrow said. “We finished with an unusually small varsity roster last year, between 25-30, but we had 48 on the JV, and with those Newport kids coming in, we should have about 45 this year.”
It’s not as if the cupboard was completely bare from last year’s varsity. Twelve starters – eight of those are on offense – return from the 2019 squad, including C.J. Rocci. The junior proved to be the team’s top offensive player, gaining 459 receiving yards, 364 rushing yards and 10 total touchdowns.
“We were better last year when we simplified it down to like four plays involving C.J.,” Barrow said. “That is why I’m not worried as much about our offseason. I’m certainly not afraid to narrow our offensive playbook down to six plays. I’ve got no problem with that whatsoever, because I think most coaches, and I’m guilty of it, we probably have too much in our playbook to begin with.”
The team also brings back all five starting offensive linemen.
“They are a lot stronger,” Barrow said. “As a matter of fact, in mid-March, before everything got shut down, we were already a lot stronger. Our weight room numbers were much better. If we can maintain that, it will pay dividends. That will be the biggest difference from last year. I feel like they’ve bought in.”
The coach, who is entering his sixth year, said 80 percent of the football players are currently in weight-training classes, so they are getting assigned a daily workout. He’s staying in communication with them at least once a week, texting players and keeping them up to date.
The Patriots typically work out every Thursday during the spring leading up to Memorial Day weekend. Then they go three to four days a week in June and July before the first official practice on Aug. 1.
“I think those 12 Thursdays before the summer is just enough to keeps the kids fresh and excited about football,” Barrow said. “It’s about knocking the rust off, working on technique and building some excitement going into summer workouts.”
Barrow doesn’t have any immediate plans to open up the playbook via technology, but that could change if the team learns it isn’t able to meet on the field this summer.
“I can’t see starting Zoom meetings and have kids do that for months when we don’t know when or if the season is starting,” he said. “I don’t think that is sustainable. Who knows how long this is going on for? Once I get a firmer idea of when we are going to start, I’ve got a Google Classroom for football. We can work on our specific offense and defense and watch film.”
The Mariners will enter the 2020 season with an unusual mix of youth and experience, or rather, experienced youth. That is what happens when 17 of 29 players on the roster were underclassmen.
“We were young last year, and we’ll be young next year,” Frazier said. “And it won’t be much different the following year. We’ll only have a couple of seniors next season.”
Frazier liked to joke on Friday nights last season that his squad looked pretty good … for a JV team. East’s youth showed in most of those contests with the outfit going 3-9 and dropping those nine games by an average of 42.6 points.
Most of the players from that team will return with the Mariners bringing back nine starters on each side of the ball.
“I’m really optimistic about next season,” Frazier said. “I’m amazed at the growth spurts I’ve seen. The kids are getting bigger all the time and putting on some weight.”
The top three talents at the skill positions return.
Sophomore Adam McIntosh totaled 837 yards (439 passing, 381 rushing, 17 receiving) followed by freshman Jacob Nelson with 680 (354 passing, 215 rushing, 111 receiving) and junior Qualik Nolon with 401 (275 receiving, 126 rushing).
In an equally important development for the future of the program, East will field a junior varsity team for the first time since 2015.
“We should have about 20 guys on the JV, not counting middle school guys,” Frazier said. “We’ve been recruiting in the hallways. We got some guys who are planning to play who played before but didn’t play last year.”
Frazier said the selling point to those 20 players came from knowing they would be going up against guys their own size and skill level.
“It’s hard to get younger kids to play varsity,” he said. “I don’t blame them. You don’t want to be a freshman and start your varsity career against West Craven. You don’t want freshmen and sophomores starting every Friday night and getting beat up by juniors and seniors.”
Unfortunately, if there was ever a year when the Mariners needed a full and normal offseason, it’s this offseason. However, there is no guarantee the team will be able to meet in full this summer.
“This hurts us, especially with the JV program, which we’re excited about,” Frazier said. “This would have been great to have spring workouts with those JV kids. It would have been perfect. We’ll figure out a way. It will just be tougher. This hit us hard.”
Frazier reported the team would usually work out four days a week during the last two weeks of May and then go three days a week in June and July.
“And of course, then we had a lot of camps we were going to – ECU, N.C. State,” he said. “I don’t see those happening now. And like most teams, we were planning on doing a lot of 7-on-7 competitions.”
Most of the players take weight training and receive workout plans each week. Frazier said he tries to contact two to three players a day.
“I just get up with them to chat and see how they are doing,” he said.
If the summer doesn’t go according to schedule, the coach will enter his fourth year with a contingency plan in place.
“We’ll have Zoom meetings by positions,” he said. “After the coaches get the playbook settled, we’ll share it with the kids. We don’t want to flood them with too much information. We’ll take our time.”