For the second consecutive year, we spent the first game week of the 2014 season immersed inside the Leesville football team. What happens when the team isn’t under the spotlights of Friday night? Read on for the full behind-the-scenes experience.
A suffocating oven of hot sunlight bakes the Leesville football practice field to a crisp as the minutes tick by ever so slowly on a Monday afternoon in late August.
Weighed down by shaggy outfits of outdated padding and gear, the hoard of football players endure the heat as they practice on in positional groups. For the first time in years, both varsity and junior varsity players are practicing together this season, and (from the sidelines) the field resembles an ant colony of activity.
“I know it’s hot,” shouts Nolan Schachle, senior, to his fellow receivers. “Everybody’s hot.” He proceeds to take a double shift in the current drill.
Team veterans like Schachle will be relied upon heavily in the the coming 2014 season, which begins in just four days. The Leesville team has experienced a change in team composition since the conclusion of the previous year; uncertainty surrounds the program’s both immediate and long-term future with frustrating haziness.
A new head coach. A new coaching staff. Only 27 seniors on the 62-man varsity roster. And, most alarming of all, no Braxton Berrios or Malcolm Hitchcock — the one-two punch that led the Pride to within one play of the Cap-8 conference championship the previous autumn.
Now Week 1 of the new season has arrived with surprising urgency. The haziness is about to be cleared, the true potency of a sans-Berrios Leesville team about to be revealed.
It’s up to Mike Hobgood, the former South Granville boss replacing Chad Smothers as head coach, to take control — and responsibility — for whatever glory or disaster lies ahead. The News & Observer just projected the Pride to post a 7-4 record, but Hobgood has more ambitious goals.
“[7-4] doesn’t match with my expectations,” he says. “We’ve got to pull some upsets, and I think we can. We’ll get better and better as the year goes on.”
The season-long improvement he’s hoping for must begin on this Monday, August 18 — not on Friday, when Leesville hosts Jordan High in the home opener, or when the team suffers its first loss, or at another unidentified point down the road.
Under the 100-degree sun, toughness and endurance are stressed most. The special teams coverage units run suicides, back and forth, back and forth, across the field. Defensive backs shuffle forward and back in between obstacles, knowing that falling down will equate to possibly being trampled by the teammate behind them. Ball-carriers face inevitably crushing tackles in the daily 2-on-2 “Oklahoma Drill”, yet run towards the impact with complete dedication.
After all, nothing less than complete dedication is accepted. The new generation of Leesville football may not have yet achieved greatness, but doing so — and doing so as fast as possible — is priority No. 1.
Coaching Change Necessitates Player Adjustment
“Hobgood runs a tight ship.”
Daniel Gleiberman, senior defensive end, doesn’t hesitate when asked about the differences between Leesville’s two coaching staffs of the past two years. “Hobgood has a little more rules while Smothers was more lenient towards the players,” he adds.
The new boss’ strictness isn’t evident whatsoever at first glance. Hobgood doesn’t yell often, or speak loudly in conversation, or launch into 10-minute speeches.
His presence is omnipresent but not ever-present: he keeps order not by harshly punishing those who misbehave but rather by creating an atmosphere that simply doesn’t include misbehavior.
When a player doesn’t touch the far sideline in a mid-practice sprint, the entire team runs again — no punishment necessary. When a lineman doesn’t launch himself into his designated blocking assignment, Hobgood tells him to “not just waddle out there” and restarts the play.
“It’s just non-stop work,” says Khamari Alexander, senior running back, tiredly during a break in drills on Tuesday. “Hobgood is…old-school style. We work hard in practice.”
Two weeks later, when Smothers appears in an ESPN crowd shot of the Miami-Louisville college game, a number of multi-year varsity players caption the screenshot on Twitter (frequently called “Tweeter” by the former coach) with their favorite Smothers’ sayings. Affection for the man, despite his lack of warm-and-fuzziness, certainly still lingers.
But Hobgood is nonetheless quickly establishing himself as the new director and face of the program. Earlier in the summer, step one of his tenure was to install a radically different offensive system — a system that will be tested for the first time at the end of the week.
New Systems Add Dynamic Aspects
The old Leesville was headlined by a few key stars and an offensive style that revolved exclusively around them. The new Leesville is far more balanced in talent across the roster, necessitating a different approach to the playbook.
On offense, the I-formation is in. Drop-back passing is in. The triple option is in.
The presence of Clay Vick, junior quarterback, gives the Pride the passing threat they have lacked for years. Mike Dehaney, running back, resembles a high school version of Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Doug Martin, his shifty footwork adding an additional element to his typical smashmouth style.
Elisiah Richardson and Conner Eller, senior wide receivers, both make up for their lack of height with outstanding receiving skills. Designing plays to allow each to find open space to break downfield has been one of the key offensive goals of the offseason.
On defense, eight of 11 starters return from last year’s unit, which allowed just 19.3 points per game. The greater leadership and experience available made the offseason transition simpler; new defensive coordinator ____________ kept the usual 4-3 base formation of previous autumns.
“Our new style is very good with the people that we have,” says Dehaney. “We adjusted quick and I think it’s going to work out well with the personnel that we have this year.”
Schachle agrees. “It’s not based on one or two players, it’s the whole team getting involved,” he says enthusiastically. “I like that and I’m pretty sure everybody else does too.”
The Smothers’ scheme was undeniably successful at Leesville, but may have also run its course by his departure. With the Pride down 24-21 to rival Millbrook with the 2013 season on the line, Smothers called a Hitchcock run up the middle on 4th-and-2 in the final minute — a call that seemed overly basic for the most important play of the season. The Wildcat defense stuffed the run and ended Leesville’s season.
This autumn’s team doesn’t expect to end 2014 in similar fashion.
“I think we’re going to be better than last year,” says Joshua Hudson, junior offensive tackle, with a hint of emphatic passion underlining his words.
“Everyone just saw it was Braxton, Braxton, Braxton, but now that Braxton’s gone, everyone thinks ‘we’ve now got a chance to beat Leesville’. That’s not true. Now we’ve got more variety to get the ball too.”
Three Hours, Under the Sun, Every Day
On the practice field, the calendar flips towards Friday with painful slowness. Monday eventually turns to Tuesday, and Tuesday eventually turns to Wednesday, but they all seemingly mush together like a slushie in the late summer heat.
Come Wednesday, however — the final real practice day before Thursday’s play-by-play walkthrough and Friday’s game — the tone changes.
The team powers through sets of push-ups and sit-ups while chanting the letters of ‘P-R-I-D-E’ and ‘H-E-A-R-T’.
“You’ve got to get a sense of urgency,” lectures Hobgood with noticeable intensity. “I also wish you could fool around all week and then beat someone, but that’s not the way it works. You can either enjoy now, or you can enjoy Friday night.”
Half an hour later, the first-team offense is taking part in their most game-like practice sequence of the week: the two-minute drill. Mason Pyper, senior backup quarterback, completes a pass to Richardson, then is sacked by Gleiberman, then runs it himself, then passes to Alexander, then to Eller, then to Eller again, and finally incomplete on a hail mary.
Frank Lassiter, offensive coordinator, isn’t pleased. “Two freaking minutes and you cost us the game,” he shouts. “And don’t say ‘it’s Wednesday and I’ll do it on Friday’, because you won’t!”
The practice progresses through a plethora of other special situations, including field goals and goal-line plays. Ben Grant, junior kicker, knocks through six of seven extra point attempts. Dehaney dives over the pile of linemen for the touchdown.
On Thursday, the entire package is tossed together for the game walkthrough. Some moments are smoothly executed, others aren’t — but the final product, at least for week one, will have to do.
Hobgood concludes the week of practice with a speech to the team, comparing success to bacon and practice to the ugly behind-the-scenes process of slaughtering and butchering the pig.
Indeed, the daily routine that takes place on the dusty, shade-free field sweltering above the tennis courts rarely looks pretty. Come twilight on Thursday evening, though, it’s been gradually sharpened and molded into a cohesive game plan.
“We all have a new start here, a brand new coaching staff, a new era,” says Hobgood as his speech nears conclusion.
“Expectations are as low as they’ve been in a long time. I find that exhilarating, challenging, and it’s even better because I think we have the team to exceed that.”
Leesville is ready for football.
What’s Happened Since
Thanks to 241 passing yards and three touchdowns from Clay Vick, junior quarterback, the Pride would indeed be victorious on that first Friday night. The 34-12 victory over Durham Jordan seemed to foreshadow another dominant season ahead.
But fate has since proven determined to make the football team’s major transition a more testing one.
Star senior running back Khamari Alexander suffered a season-ending leg injury in week two. Elisiah Richardson, senior receiver, missed two games with an ankle injury. The defense allowed 358 rushing yards and 44 points to Apex, then the offense totaled three total points and 13 first downs against Panther Creek and Heritage combined.
As of today, a 3-3 record stands next to Leesville’s name in the Cap-8 standings. Wins over Jordan, Athens Drive (27-16) and Broughton (36-26) have been offset by losses to Apex (14-44), Panther Creek (0-27) and Heritage (3-14).
Through the turmoil, however, the Pride seem to have settled into their new routine. Hobgood no longer feels new; the system no longer appears unfamiliar.
The literal and figurative thunderstorms of late summer have given way to a bright sky of success on the horizon.