Home front page Full football feature: “This is what we play for”

Full football feature: “This is what we play for”

Full football feature: “This is what we play for”

Chad Smothers, head coach of the Leesville football team, pauses briefly and looks around at the 56 fervent pairs of eyes staring back at him. Five minutes remain until kickoff of the Pride’s first football game of the season.

“Friday! Night!” he shouts.

From the fan perspective, Week One of the high school football season is about to begin. For the team itself, however, the night’s event is only the climactic conclusion of a long week of sweat, bruises and hard work.

They made mistakes, and were reprimanded. They made progress, and were rewarded. Each player’s physical and emotional roller coaster ran its course over four days of brutally tough practice, all leading up to Friday’s final exhilarating ride.

 

Monday

Monday, August 19. 4:05 p.m. The first day of school remains a week away and the Leesville campus is quiet, save for the drone of distant cars, the bark of a nearby dog and the cacophony of grunts, groans and shouts from the 56 burly members of the varsity football team.

It’s the first day of the first game week in the first varsity season for most of the team, and the practice field is in chaos.

The starting offense scrimmages the “scout team” defense — the backups trained to emulate the opposing team’s strategies — in one area. A chain of receivers run slot routes in another area. The long snapper strains to hit a distant target in a corner. A crowd of strong, sweaty lineman battle man-to-man in a different corner.

A blaring airhorn blast echoes across the field, despite having seemingly no effect on the afternoon’s organization. “Period three!” shouts Wilson Dove, senior. Dove’s final season as a starter has been cut short by a torn Achilles — but that doesn’t stop him from keeping order around practice each day.

“Trips right A! Gold 27!” yells a clearly stressed Jeremy Fullbright, offensive coordinator. “Trump right A! Gray 7! Three-wheel no con! Joker right! Slide three!

Then, suddenly, the mayhem ends. All 56 men unite as one, stretching and doing jumping jacks in tune to the chant leading of Braxton Berrios, senior captain. Officially, practice has just begun.

“We’re gonna be sharks this year, not goldfish, swimming around in a pool of mediocrity,” said Chad Smothers, head coach, when the team huddles together for the first time that afternoon. “The kid you are now? You’ll be the same kind of kid on Friday night.”

“Two thousand thirteen. Here we go, baby!”

Then the mayhem resumes.

It’s a rough day for the big men fighting in the trenches. When one fatigued player misses an important block, his mistake sends Elrod Morris, defensive lineman coach, into a furious frenzy. “What do we want to do on defense? Gain ground! Gain ground! We’ve got to attack the freaking shoulder!”

When all is said and done, Morris is the players’ favorite coach, the one they chat with about the NFL after practice. From 4 to 7 p.m., though, he’s far from amicable. “”Ankle sprain? I sprain my ankle everyday getting it of bed,” he retorts to a player recovering from injury. “It’s all mental.”

Across the field, the receivers are struggling to consistently haul in Berrios’ sizzling passes. “”Nice catch, Thomas,” mutters some unidentified observer. “What’s Braxton gonna do, throw to himself? ‘Cause he could just about do that.”

Replacing Berrios on some plays is David Democker, senior. He doesn’t look quite as comfortable with the playbook as his partner — but that’s of little surprise to the coaching staff, considering it’s his very first day in North Carolina.

“[Practice] seems really organized, and I really like the team a lot,” he said. “Coach Smothers does a lot of good stuff.”

Criticism, both constructive and deconstructive, is dished out regularly by the coaching staff. Marcel Hawkins, senior, needs to keep his eyes on the line during a “read” play. Mike Dehaney, junior, needs to run his crossing route faster. Michael Hopkins, senior, needs to catch the ball on his fade routes. Robert Zimmer, senior, needs to run towards the center.

Off in the corner, Mathew Cross, sophomore long snapper, hikes the ball yards over the intended mesh target. He looks around and rubs his hands, hoping no one noticed his embarrassing mistake, before retrieving the ball.

The blunders continue. The scout team defense uses a Leesville formation, leading to another red-faced Civitello explosion. A lineman doesn’t follow through with Morris’s “G-change” command; Morris shouts angrily, “What change are you thinking about, son?!”

When the airhorn blows to end the 24th and final period, it’s evident that the coming post-practice huddle will not be a cheery one. “We’ve got to clean it up tomorrow,” says Guy Civitello, defensive coordinator. “We’ve got to tackle better; we’ve got to be crisper with our blitzes and our movements.”

Smothers echoes similar concerns. “We were out here an hour and 40 minutes. We didn’t practice for an hour and 40 minutes. Not even close. Mental engagement? Not there. Sluggish, people making the same mistake getting corrected off and on, missed alignments from formations a couple times.”

“The challenge tomorrow is that…you’ve got to practice like it’s the Super Bowl, because if you don’t, then you are not fulfilling part of the process of being great. It is a daily habit.”

 

Tuesday

Tuesday, August 20. 3:25 p.m. A Jordan High School quarterback bootlegs out to the left side and throws a short pass to a nearby tight end, who breaks a tackle from a Northwood High School linebacker and falls into the endzone.

Such is the scene playing out on the screen in the football film room, which reeks of sweaty pads and undiluted concentration.

“Versus pro left, tight end down here. Just a straight toss,” explains Civitello. “The tight end is a big boy.”

“Malcolm [Hitchcock], if they run across strong side, or Brock [Pyper] and Khamari [Alexander], if they run across weak…you’ve got to take out the fullback one yard in their backfield.”

Civitello breaks down both the plays being run on the screen and what the defense needs to do to stop them. However, all-access media hasn’t quite reached high school football yet, so not everything is certain. “We don’t know who their quarterback is. The guy who played against us last year, a 6’4” white kid, is listed as the starter. But [another] guy played in the scrimmage against Northwood.”

Later, on the practice field, the coaching staff has shifted roles again. “We’re gonna have a lot better day than we did yesterday,” Smothers shouts encouragingly. “We’re gonna move those feet; we’re gonna practice with a higher sense of urgency.”

The offense runs through various tiny details that could make all the difference come Friday. If Berrios says any word beginning in “C” during his snap count, Malik Parker, junior wide receiver, must take a step forward to the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, if the tight end stays off the line, the right tackle must move inside to complete the line of blocking.

“[The coaches] have a set schedule,” says a tired Berrios as the day wears on. “We follow along, and they keep us on track: they yell at us, they discipline us, and we’re focused the whole time. By the third, fourth, fifth week, we’ll get better and better at it. It begins to be a routine and normally people work well with routines.”

By the time 6 o’clock rolls around, it is clear that Tuesday will go down as a much more productive day than Monday. The offense has run through a plethora of plays with relative efficiency; the defense has worked on the tackling strength they struggled with earlier. Parker Yount, sophomore kicker, puts a wrap on the day with a series of successful field goals.

“[It was] a lot better than it was yesterday. Miles better,” says Fullbright. “We had a good game in practice. We had a great run there with the goal line and red zone stuff.”

“We’re basically one day out,” Smothers tells the team. “We’ve got one more work day and it is what it is. I thought we practiced better today than we did yesterday, but we didn’t practice very well defensively. We don’t hang our hat on getting into shootouts.”

The squad breaks huddle to the dramatic soundtrack of the distant band practice as twilight slowly engulfs the Leesville campus.

 

Wednesday

Wednesday, August 21. 3:50 p.m. Splotches of red, orange, yellow and green make the coaches cringe as 4 o’clock approaches.

But they’re not looking a grotesque wound. They’re looking at the local radar on WRAL — and it forewarns the approach of an enormous summer thunderstorm.

They fear that the day of outdoor practice will be lost. In the coming hours, those worries are indeed justified and fulfilled. However, they still manage to make the most of Wednesday’s practice.

The day’s indoor festivities begin with another defensive film session. Civitello is more engaged with the team this time, working through low-definition film from Tuesday’s practice.

“See how you’re covering nobody, Connor?” he says to Connor Eller, junior cornerback. “You’re replacing Brock [Pyper, senior], so…if the option goes around [to the] right, you’re all alone.”

“You’ve got to pinch in, Spencer, to force the play back inside,” he directs to Spencer Eason-Riddle, junior linebacker. “Don’t just try to throw them to the ground. Hit them to the ground.”

While much of the squad lingers boredly in the hallways, the offense runs through a classic whiteboard play-diagramming session in the next room over.

If Berrios calls out a few certain words in Trips Right A formation, the outside receivers run curl routes — they run upfield a certain distance and then take several steps back towards the quarterback — while the inside receivers run diagonal routes across the middle. “We’re really [tricking] the cornerback on that,” he says.

If Berrios calls another few words in Trump Right A formation, the left inside receiver waits for a pass in the flat — along the sideline near the line of scrimmage. If not, he runs across the play pre-snap and takes a handoff.

Outside, the thunder and rain continue to hammer down in torrents. The squad manages to claim the auxiliary gym, though, and — cleats excluded — practice regains a sense of normality.

One of the day’s key objectives is a runthrough of the scripted 10 opening plays. They’ll run them in their first 10 snaps Friday night regardless of how the early game progresses, giving them an opportunity to get into a well-established and confidence-building rhythm early on.

After running Jack Right D, a screen play, on the 10th and final snap, they move on to the general playbook.

“This is the best Wednesday we’re gonna have,” Smothers tells the team. “This is what we get; we’ve got to make the most of it. Every other team [in the area] is dealing with this problem, too. We’ve got to have the best Wednesday practice we’ve ever had — inside or outside, it doesn’t matter.”

Thursday

Thursday, August 22. 4:30 p.m. The dusty, bumpy, grass-lacking practice field is now in the rear-view mirror. It’s game walkthrough day, and the football team has officially taken up residence in Marshall L. Hamilton stadium.

Every strategy, every play, every audible, every formation change, every unit switch is given a chance in the limelight, an opportunity to smooth out the final inefficiencies and perfect the game plan for Friday night.

“We go extremely hard,” says Marcel Reece, senior. “[There is] no slacking; just fast-paced practice.

The team practices not only kickoffs but also squib kicks, onside kicks and punts. The squad practices switching from offense to defense, offense to special teams, defense to special teams and then all over again, in reverse.

“[The coaching staff] leave it up to us to be player-motivated, not just coach-motivated,” says Malcolm Hitchcock, senior. “We go out there and practice every day like our heads are on fire.”

It’s not a long practice — for many players, more time is spent baking in the hot sun on the sidelines than actually on the field during the 90-minute runthrough. However, it’s success is crucial for the team’s confidence and execution 24 hours later.

As the nervous anticipation of tomorrow’s entrance into the limelight sets in, many players begin to think back on the week and stress over their preparedness. For Bryan Henriques, senior lineman, however, his quiet, humble confidence remains unshakeable. ““I thought we had a pretty good week of practice. We didn’t start off as good, but we ended…great,” he says. “I think we’ll come out and get the ‘W’ tomorrow.”

By the time Wilson Dove’s air horn signals 5:30 and the coaches gather around for one final practice recap before game day, it is clear the tumultuous week of practice has all come together nicely in the end.

“I feel confident in the fact that you guys know what we’re supposed to do, gameplan-wise,” says Civitello. “Now it’s just going out there and executing. Don’t give them any hope whatsoever — [we have to] come out and punch them in the mouth.”

Smothers echoes that pep talk. “You ought to be having a bunch of different types of emotions going on [right now]. You should be feeling exciting, you should be feeling confident, there should be an aura of anxiety, there should be all of the above floating around in there.”

“They’re like they always are, guys.  They’ve got as many [people] as we’ve got. They’ve got people as fast as we’ve got. The thing that has separated us from then…is right here,” he says, pointing to the center of his chest.

“We know where we’re at, we know how we got to where we’re at, we know what it takes to stay where we’re at. That is what divides you guys from people..who want to be in our position. Everybody wants to win at war, but there are only so many people willing to die for it.”

Friday

Friday, August 23. 6:55 p.m. The clock on the scoreboard at Charles E. Jordan High School in Durham, N.C., reads 8:13 to kickoff. Then 8:12. Then 8:11.

It takes exactly 1,000 milliseconds for the clock to tick down each digit. For the mob of green and white uniform-toting men congregated in one end zone, each second seems to take hours to disappear.

It’s a stark contrast compared to the previous four hours, which blurrily whizzed by in what felt like a few minutes. They arrived at Leesville for the team meal. They went through final pre-game preparations. They boarded the dirty, smelly WCPSS bus. They rumbled down I-540, then I-40, then US-751. They departed the dirty, smelly bus. They passed a bored brigade of cops cursed to Friday traffic duty. They poured into the stadium’s dark, airy bathroom, and out again. And they stood around in the endzone, waiting for the clock to read 0:00.

At long last, it finally does — but only for a moment. Quickly, 12:00 pops up on the board. 12 minutes left in the first quarter.

It’s game time.

“This is why you are pushed,” chants Smothers. “This is why you are coached hard. This is why, when something ain’t right, we work in practice to get it fixed. Go out and answer the call.”

And, with that, the game begins.

The early-going runs smoothly for Leesville. The defense stops Jordan on their possession, and Hitchcock picks up a first down on the Pride’s first drive before Berrios is forced to punt.

Then, just like the coaching staff had warned of in practice, one mistake changes everything. One Leesville linebacker blitzes the quarterback while another gets out of position, and the Jordan draw play to Rodney Wilson, running back, goes 39 yards for a touchdown. Suddenly, it’s 7-0, Jordan.

The score fails to dampen the spirits of the raucous visiting student section, but the sideline falls into a murmur of surprise. The Pride, 22-2 over the previous two seasons combined, don’t fall behind often. Could this be the year the dynasty ends?

Berrios, though, doesn’t think so. The offensive line slowly but surely begins to wear down the Jordan defense, and he takes advantage — a 15-yard rush up the middle, a 20-yard scamper down the left sideline. Then, as Berrios runs into a wall on the right side of the line of scrimmage on play No. 3, he sees an unexpected opening in the opposite direction. Five seconds later, he’s diving through the air, knocking over the orange pylon at the corner of the endzone and roaring the Pride back to life.

From this point on, it’s all downhill. All the days that Leesville “won” on the practice field begin to translate into winning on Friday night, just as Smothers had predicted.

The coaches’ play-calling begins to click into rhythm. The players begin to run over Jordan defenders with each and every block. The defense stuffs every Jordan screen play and counter run. And No. 8 and No. 1 go to work.

Berrios and Hitchcock each run for three and two more touchdowns, respectively, as the half slowly ticks away. They live up to the expectation that the former set forth before the game: “We just need to execute, and we should win.” All of the reps taken late into the evening each night that week pay off in the end.

At halftime, the Pride lead the Falcons, 42-7. A referee comes up to Smothers, shakes his hand, and says, “It’s an honor.” The bored policeman guarding the entrance asks a green-clad fan, “Are you guys really this good, or is Jordan just that bad?” The legacy fame of Leesville football has annexed another region of the Triangle.

The squad finishes with 481 yards of offense on the night, including 206 from Berrios, in their 62-21 win. The star of the night gives all the credit to his loyal blockers, though. “It was a great team win; we got on top and never looked back,” he says.

The coaches each parade through the post-game huddle, giving praise to their respective units. Most are already looking forward to the next week, though, and forewarning the team of the many tests and tribulations to come.

“Good job, but let’s buckle up going into Monday,” says Civitello to the defense. “It feels good to put 60 on the board [tonight],…but be humble and ready to get better on Monday,” says Fullbright to the defense. “We left some points on the field; we got some, but we left some out there too,” says Schock to the special teams.

“We came over here and we did what we were supposed to do,” says Smothers. “It’s game one. Enjoy it, have a good time with it, and come to work on Monday.”

The routine is just 72 hours away from starting all over again.

Next week is right around the corner.

Explore an abridged version of this article on pg. 11 of The Mycenaean, out now!

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