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If it wasn’t serious before, it is now.
Voluntary made its annual transition into mandatory Monday morning with the official opening of football practice in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association ranks.
While this opening day also represents the first day of official practice for all fall sports, it always represents an important marker in the countdown to the first whistle shrill on Friday night. Given the proliferation of offseason workouts, it’s just another preseason day administratively inside the doors of all three Wilson County football programs.
But for fans and followers of the high school game, this day is tantamount to a full-blown warning siren. Football is at hand.
Varsity and junior varsity programs at Hunt and Fike caught a weather break by holding practices from 8 a.m. until 11 a.m. In the early morning hours Monday, it appeared as if a steady downpour would force the Warriors and Golden Demons to make adjustments in their practice routine. However, the heavy rain ceased, and the only evidence of significant precipitation were standing puddles around areas of the Fike practice field. The sun rarely intervened, with periods of mist cooling players and coaches alike. Weather shined upon Hunt similarly, with overcast conditions giving way to the sun breaking through in the final 45 minutes of practice.
Beddingfield, which will not field a junior varsity team until the start of 2-A Eastern Plains Conference play at the earliest, was greeted with dreary skies as it approached the practice field 15 minutes before 6 p.m. The rumbling of thunder could be heard periodically, along with light showers. However, the Bruins completed their customary “Bruin Run” before the threat of ominous weather forced second-year head coach James Ward and his team to the gymnasium for formation work just after 7.
At the outset of Monday morning, it seemed as if the Warriors would be destined for the Hunt gymnasium for opening day. But the skies ultimately cooperated and allowed Byrum’s group the chance to get in an uninterrupted session — albeit with the shoulder pads and lack of body-to-body contact stripped away.
“When you go into a gym with 100 kids, it really limits what you can do all of a sudden,” Byrum said. “All that fundamental work that these days are for, it’s very difficult to do it. It almost ends up being like a team session, like classroom stuff. We are very, very fortunate that we are out here today. All summer long, aside from a couple of days where it was hot and we were limited in what we could do, our practices have been pretty much uninterrupted.”
Yet with Monday marking the “crossing the Rubicon” moment as far as mandatory attendance, latecomers were penalized for the first time and met with Byrum at the close of practice to learn of their consequences. Not necessarily punishment, per Byrum, but extra work.
“We say everything but the word mandatory,” Byrum said of the sessions leading up to Monday. “Because we can’t. The rules are, it’s not mandatory until July 30. But today was the day where you had to be on time and you had to be here. And if you weren’t, then you have to do extra.”
An equal number of varsity and junior varsity candidates — approximately 45 each — populate the Hunt rosters. That’s a situation that neither pleases nor displeases Byrum, who oversaw a pair of 3-8 campaigns in his first two seasons.
“I’m not so much hung up on numbers,” he said. “It’s just what kind of players do we have. You can go out there with 25 kids, and if it’s the right kind of kids playing the right way, you can win countless games.”
The starting quarterback situation is far from settled without the aid of a scrimmage, with Andrew Jones and Nathan Lemons returning for their senior seasons. Joining that mix is junior Dalton Garwood, up from the junior varsity and a viable candidate.
With the past two years producing the worst marks in the history of Warrior football, there’s a hunger to turn the tide among the upperclassmen.
“Certain kids seem to be feeling that sense of urgency,” Byrum said. “Maybe it’s their last chance to do something in high school football this year, and they want it to better.”
Hunt, which opens its 2018 season on the road at Eastern Wayne, will scrimmage at Cleveland on Friday, Aug. 10. from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.
It’s good to be the dean.
Such is the unofficial title placed upon eighth-year Fike head coach Tom Nelson, who finds himself as the longest tenured head coach among Wilson County’s three sideline generals.
That stability has reaped rewards after a pair of early building seasons off Harrison Drive. With Nelson now 50-36 with five consecutive seasons of at least .500 or better.
“We’re very proud of what we’ve done,” Nelson said during a break in practice Monday morning. “I think looking back over it since 2011, I think our program is in a really good place. Our expectations are clear, and our kids work really hard. We’ve had great consistency with our coaching staff, and we’ve had very few changes over these years.
“I was talking to (first-year Northern Nash head coach) Andrew Farriss last night and he was worried his first day, just hiring coaches. He’s in a totally different place than we are. Today’s just another day for us. It’s an extension of what we’ve been doing over the summer.”
Nelson, who led Fike to a 9-4 showing last season, reported that the Demons have approximately 48 varsity and 48 junior varsity candidates in the program.
“Our numbers in our JV’s have gone down the last couple of years,” Nelson, also now the Fike athletic director, said. “But I think we’ll still have the same number of players. We just don’t have the same number of bodies. And that’s not a bad thing.”
Nelson is optimistic about returning strength in the Fike linebacking corps, as well as the return of running back Cody Cooper-Speight for his senior season. Three offensive linemen are back for the Demons, blocking for senior passer Josh Avery, who was part of a timeshare with graduate Jaelynn Melton, en route to Brunswick Community College to play baseball. Incidentally, Josh Avery is the brother of Cam Avery, Nelson’s senior passer when he took over the Fike program in 2011.
“I think we’ve got some dangerous weapons on offense,” Nelson said. “We’ve just got to be able to get it to them.”
Fike will scrimmage twice in the span of three days, beginning Wednesday, Aug. 8 at East Duplin. The Demons will scrimmage Havelock, Wilmington Laney and the host Panthers before hosting the Fike Jamboree two days later. There, Fike welcomes Nash Central, D.H. Conley, Corinth Holders and Rolesville.
The Demons kick off the season inside Buddy Bedgood Stadium on Aug. 17 against Northern Durham.
By any objective measure, Ward’s maiden voyage as head coach of the Bruins was a success.
Beddingfield finished 8-5 and seized a share of the EPC championship by beating co-champ SouthWest Edgecombe.
Yet duplicating that feat in 2018 could be a challenge for these Bruins, who will be without at least 13 prospects after they opted to continue on in the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology program.
Still, the helmets that belonged to players lined along the ground in the numbered around 25 on Monday night. Those souls took part in the “Bruin Run,” a time-honored Beddingfield football tradition that Ward reinstated in full once he took over the head coaching duties last year. Players, by position group, line up and must meet time standards at various intervals. Any misses must be made up each day until the player hits each benchmark.
As such, Beddingfield did not touch a football for the first hour of practice Monday before relocating to the gym.
“I thought they made good times,” Ward said. “We met in the coaches meeting last night, and some of my newer coaches were like ‘Man, those times tough! But like I tell them, I’m on the (NCHSAA) track board, we had to adjust the qualifying times for track because kids are getting faster and stronger. I had these boys in the weight room for an entire year, so I’ve got to hold them to a higher standard.’
Among the new coaches are Stephan Virgil, a Rocky Mount High product who played collegiately at Virginia Tech. Also meandering the Bruins practice field was Kim Brown, the former Fike and North Lenoir head coach who is not, for the moment, officially part of the staff. However, Ward assured that Brown was on in a consulting capacity. Cisco Payton returns as defensive coordinator and joins Ward as the only other coach in the building during the school day. Stocking the coaching staff with enough experience to match wits with opponents became a priority.
“I went chasing the sideline,” Ward said. “I thought we got beat a little bit on the sideline last year, and that was the primary focus. Player wise, I think we’ve got everything that’s in the building out here!”
Ward expects to be strong in the backfield again, led by junior Jalil Hutcherson, and stands to have a new kicker in junior Lynsey Reason. Although she hasn’t faced an in-game rush yet, Ward contends Reason can connect from 40 yards. Hutcherson was not present for the Bruin Run on Monday after needing to have his physical form signed.
Ward said that the Bruins would not attempt to field a JV unit until the start of conference play, at the earliest.
The Bruins will scrimmage twice, at Riverside Martin on Aug. 8 and at Elizabeth City Northeastern on Aug. 10 for the North Carolina-Virginia Challenge.
Beddingfield opens up against Oxford Webb on Aug. 17.