RockinghamNow sports journalist Jim Sands recently had a series of conversations with the McMichael, Morehead, Reidsville and Rockingham County football coaches to gather some insight on what to expect for the 2023 varsity season that kicks off Aug. 18. Take a look at what the coaches had to say in this exclusive Q&A:
The Rams finished 14-2 as the 2A NCHSAA State runner-up following a 24-21 loss to East Duplin in the championship game Dec. 10, 2022 in Chapel Hill.
New head coach Erik Teague has some big shoes to fill following the retirement of his North Carolina Hall of Fame father Jimmy Teague, but Erik’s team is loaded with talent and experienced enough to contend for a state championship yet again in 2023.
JS: What has been your experience as the new head coach been like at your alma mater?
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Teague: It has definitely been an exciting couple of months. Even though I played here and have been an assistant here for 12 years, being in a different role, there a lot of different new things that I’m not used to doing. Especially the administrative things like taking on grades and making sure the kids have physicals — eligibility and the decisions that have to be made. All of those things come across your desk. So there are some things that are a little bit different than what I dealt with as an assistant coach, but it’s been fun learning all of the ins and outs of what I’m going to be doing for the next several years.
JS: How have the players responded to you being the new head man? I know that as being the former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, they are familiar with you and what you like and what you expect, but how have they responded to you as the new head coach?
Teague: For me it was kind of hard to tell initially especially heading into spring practice. I think once we got through spring ball, pretty much they didn’t think anything different other than taking five or 10 minutes at the end of the day to talk about a point of emphasis where we talk about whatever the concept of the day is where they can hear a little bit about what my perspective on things are. In the past, as a coordinator and positions coach, they didn’t necessarily see me standing up in front of the team talking about different things and the day-to-day stuff. I think through the spring and summer, they were ready to roll. The positive for me is that we have got a really good group of seniors to start off with and they do a really good job of leading and have a lot of experience and I think that has helped me out as well.
JS: You mentioned to me several years ago this is a job you wanted, but how intimidating is it to step into your father’s shoes, a man who is set to be inducted into the North Carolina Coaching Hall of Fame Aug. 19? Obviously, he’s the most successful football coach ever at Reidsville. Is that something that made you quake a little bit?
Teague: It might hit me when they turn the lights on Aug. 18 against Western Alamance. It might hit me a little bit more then, but I think I’ve been mentally preparing myself for the last several years to step in as the head coach. I’m more excited for the opportunity that our players have and some of our new coaches have to step up this year as seniors and the new coaches to experience what it is like on Friday night and what it is like being a Ram.
JS: There has been a shift in some of the position coaches with the departure of long-time Reidsville assistant Al Hendrix and a few other roles. How do you feel about the staff you have on the sidelines?
Teague: Coach (Doug) Marrs coming back was definitely a big help just because he is so familiar with what we have been doing defensively. I was going to be scrambling a little bit if he did decide to retire last year, but that has definitely taken a little bit off of my plate. I’m obviously going to be involved in the defensive game plan and that type of thing, but he’s been the guy doing it for the last 12 years and he’s kind-of got the reins on that. I’ll offer my input. As far as the other coaches, we’ve got a lot of young guys that bring a lot of energy and knowledge. One thing that I’ve said several times is one of the cool things about our staff is that everybody except coach Marrs was a former player here. A lot of those guys played in college, so they know football and the system. They know what it is like to play for Reidsville and be a Reidsville Ram and several of those guys have state championship rings. The fact that they are there and want to come back and teach and share what it was like when they were in high school and college, I think there is a lot of new type of energy in practice and kind of cool to see.
JS: Having a veteran squad coming back from last season’s NCHSAA 2A runner-up team — to be honest with you, dating back to 2016, and correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t recall a more veteran-laden squad. You’ve got upper class veterans like Al Lee [QB], Paul Widerman [RB/LB], Flip (Que’shyne Flippen) [WR/DB], Devin Shryock [ATH], Jerimiah Redd [RB/DB], Aidan Mansfield [LB/WR] — the list goes on, plus rising stars like Dionte Neal [WR/DB] and Kendre Harrison [TE/DE] who made a huge impact last season. How much of a boost in confidence does that give you and your guys with the amount of talent and experience you have coming back as you head into 2023.
Teague: We lost some big names last year from our graduating senior class, but we also have a lot of experienced guys coming back like you mentioned. Paul and Devin and Aidan, Al, Flip, a lot of those guys — they actually got playing time as freshmen back when we won the state championship in Chapel Hill in the spring, so they know what that is like and obviously what it is like to make it to the state championship and not winning that game last year. They have had a lot of experience and played in a lot of big games, so it is definitely nice to have that group of seniors back. They know what it takes. It’s nice to kind-of rely on them with some of the young guys that got some experience with them last year also. We have got a lot of experienced guys coming back for sure.
JS: You played in the state championship game as a senior for Reidsville as the quarterback and have been there, won and lost as an assistant coach, so you know what it takes. You have been a part of a tremendous run of unprecedented success at Reidsville. Do you think those championship expectations will continue — and are you guys playing with a little bit of a chip on your shoulder after the 2022 state title loss? Let’s be honest, I think you were maybe two questionable calls away in a game that came down to the last minute versus East Duplin. Are you guys hungry to get back to the title game and hopefully put the cherry on top this season?
Teague: I think a good part of our roster has that memory set in their minds. We had a good spring and had good numbers with our summer workouts and the guys have been working really hard in our first official week since practice started officially on Monday. We are not just focusing on that month of December, but keep showing up every day with that kind of chip on our shoulder and finding something we can improve on and getting a little bit better every day. Before they know it, this part of the season – scrimmages and non-conference games will be over with, but it will be here before they know it. Now, we can’t focus on that side of the season. That’s been my message to them from back in the spring. We just have to keep showing up and going to work.
JS: Your dad has finally taken some time off from coaching for perhaps the first time in his adult life, but has he given you advice for the program he helped build and elevate? Have you asked advice or has he taken the approach of ‘let Erik take the reins?’ Obviously, he had the confidence to put the ball in your hands as a player, as an assistant and was a big proponent of you as the next head football coach this year after he retired. I’m sort of wondering what that relationship is like now?
Teague: I would say for the most part, he has just let me kind-of do things the way I want. Obviously I’ve had a lot of questions along the way with all of the ins and outs of the administrative stuff. Anytime I have a question, the door is always open. He still attends occasional practices, helps with the offensive line and shares observations. I think he enjoys that part of it. He’ll give his input whenever he sees something, but he’s just enjoying coaching those guys (linemen) and giving advice when he feels like we need to do something.
JS: I’ve taken a couple of visits out to Community Stadium over the course of the restoration process this summer – and as you have witnessed, what a show-stopper of a facility you guys have. The facilities rival a lot of colleges. Has the excitement level risen amongst fans, players, the coaches to have a place like that? It’s just absolutely an amazing complex.
Teague: For us, to be able to have a place where we can walk out of our locker room door and have a nice place to practice instead of walking all the way across to the bus parking lot to go back behind the middle school, that’s been really nice. I think, in general, the community – I’ve got a feeling those first couple of home games against Western Alamance and Page are going to be pretty packed. Not just for Reidsville fans, but others in the area are going to want to come out and see what it looks like. I think there is definitely little bit of a buzz. There are still a couple of ins and outs, but hopefully we’ll get everything ready by Aug. 18.
Reidsville hosts Western Alamance at Community Stadium in the season opener.
The Phoenix finished 7-4 in 2022 and lost 48-14 to Providence Grove if the first round of the 2A NCHSAA State Playoffs.
Phoenix head coach Tony McCants, entering his fourth season at the helm, thinks his program is moving in the right direction — and following a successful finish in 2022, McMichael could make more significant strides in 2023.
JS: From the time you started as the head coach to now, what progress have you seen with the development of the McMichael football program?
McCants: Culturally, we are getting where we want to with the kids understanding our rules and expectations. There is a decent amount of buzz around the school about the football program. We are starting to see good numbers. When we started out that COVID year, we had only 23 total players. Now we have a program where we have over 50 come out for back-to-back seasons. It looks like we are going to have a pretty solid JV program, which is the life-blood of any program, so it looks like we hopefully have things moving in the right direction.
JS: Last season you had one of the most successful seasons in school history finishing at 7-4 and made the playoffs, but had a disappointing result with the loss to Providence Grove in the first round. Does that fuel the desire to take the next step in elevating the program?
McCants: We hope so. I’ve talked to the players a lot about leaving a legacy. What is your larger focus on the legacy is the question we ask. I’m always telling the seniors this is your last hoorah, so go out with a bang. To counter-point that — I talk to the younger kids and say ‘hey look, this is going to be you one day,’ referring to them becoming seniors. I emphasize that every day we are doing everything we can to make the last dance for the seniors memorable. We are doing a pretty good job. This senior class could go down as one of the most winning senior classes in McMichael history.
JS: You have a number of veteran players coming back including Jayden Moore, one of the better running backs in the state in the 2A ranks, in addition to several experienced seniors from last season’s squad. What are your expectations with your returning players?
McCants: You hit it on the head — experience. These are kids that have done it from day one. They are good role models for the freshmen and sophomores that we have. You look at someone like Jayden Moore, he didn’t miss any summer workouts except for when he had camps, so that’s always a good sign that you have a good healthy relationship with your leaders because when they come to voluntary stuff like that, it shows that they are leading from the front.
McCants: We have several kids like that in this senior class. You think about someone like a Miliq Calloway (WR/FS) — he’s been here since his sophomore year and helped us out a lot on JV. He played a little bit of a role for us last year, so we are hoping that he’s going to be able to step into a bigger role. Up front, we’ve got two seniors on the offensive line. Brenton Joyce (C) and Emory Shaw (RG/DT) same thing with Jayden and Jace (Dunn QB) he’s been a day one starter for us. To start from a freshman through the senior year, that’s something special. On the other side of the ball — Hayden Meeks (DT) — same deal — he’s been around for four years. He’s a two-time All-Conference player and one of the sack leaders in the 2A Conference, so we are hoping to get some production out of those seniors, but more importantly, that they are going to be able to trickle down some of the culture and some of the leadership.
JS: Numbers have been an issue at McMichael in the past. What was the turnout like this year in voluntary workouts?
McCants: We had about 35 a day when I first started and now we are averaging north of 50 total for the program. We had our faithfuls and an influx of younger players. We were missing some kids due to summer jobs, camps and family vacations, but now that official practice has started, we’ve got pretty much what we need and are full-go.
The Phoenix will be on the road in week No. 1 to face county rival Rockingham.
The Panthers finished 2022 at 4-7 under former head coach Maurice Torain and lost 62-13 to Burns in the first round of the 2022 NCHSAA State Playoffs.
New Panthers head coach Bobby Martin didn’t mince words. Morehead is a work in progress, so expect a season of on the job training where both players and coaches learn a new system and the roles of key positions entering the 2023 season.
JS: Since taking over, you have had just a few short months to assess the talent on the team, assemble a staff and devise a scheme for the fast-approaching season. What is your assessment of where Morehead stands?
Martin: That’s a tough question early on. I want to address the talent situation. The guys that have been coming, they have been working their tails off. I told them, and I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop-out or coach-speak, but we may not be the strongest team and we may not be the fastest team, but we can be the best conditioned team. If we are the best conditioned team, that will help balance some of the other stuff up.
JS: Have you seen flashes of talent from players that may help you win games this season?
Martin: I still don’t know yet. The only reason I say that, even with the guys coming back, everything is new and it’s just like them being first-year players too. They are trying to learn the terminology. They are trying to learn how the way we do things and a lot of what we are doing is completely different from what they learned last year. It’s been a learning curve. They’ve said ‘coach, that’s not the way we did it last year and I said I understand. I’m working with you, but this is the way we are going to do it this year.’ That’s always tough. That’s tough when kids have been doing something for a couple of years, it’s hard to change. Before I start calling people’s names out, the guys are trying. They are trying to learn and work hard and I would hate to call one or two of those names out when all of them have been busting their butts — and they have.
JS: Have you decided on a quarterback or what type of offense and defense you will run?
Martin: The answer is definitely no, I don’t know. I’ll be honest, I just don’t know. I have an idea, but I don’t know if we can do what we are trying to do. Same thing with the quarterback — If we are going to be in the spread, we need that type of quarterback. If we are going to be smash-mouth, we’ve got to have the people that can run smash-mouth, so I don’t have those answers yet. That’s not me trying to BS you, but I just don’t have the answers yet. What you will learn about me is that I’m not big on throwing guys names out there because what happens is the other 10 guys that don’t hear their name called are going to say ‘so why didn’t you call my name?’ Once they get to know me better, then I’ll start to name-call a little more. I don’t want to bust up what we are trying to build. I don’t want them talking about team, team, team, but he’s always talking about such-and-such player. Then all of the sudden those other guys start thinking that they are not worth a crap.
JS: Have you completed your crew for a coaching staff?
Martin: That’s a good way to put it. I’ve got a crew. We haven’t got all of our spots filled, but we do have a young crew together and same thing as with the players – they are just trying to learn the new terminology and the way that we do things and overall learning together. Same thing — they have been working hard too.
Morehead hits the road to take on Cummings in the first regular season game of the season.
The Cougars finished last season at 3-7 and missed the postseason.
Led by Brad Baker, who enters year seven at the helm of the Cougars, missing the playoffs in 2022 was a tough pill to swallow for a program that really had a shot to make an impact last year. Baker thinks those painful lessons will fuel the fire this season, but his goal is simple — finish each day at 1-0.
JS: Since you took over as the head coach, have you seen an evolution of the program?
Baker: I think so. Change in the culture is not for the faint of heart — and it takes a while. It’s been a grind and the kids have embraced it. We’ve been through some high times, we’ve gone through some low times, but they keep showing up every day and that’s kind of what we’ve preached — being tough — compete and being disciplined. If you do that, then good things are going to happen.
JS: Coach, you have a veteran roster of proven players that are hungry to win. What are your expectations entering 2023?
Baker: Our expectation, and it’s been this way since day one, is we are not going to get caught up in making the playoffs or winning this or winning that. Today is Wednesday, and we are trying to win Wednesday and that is all we are focused on.
JS: Throughout the spring and summer voluntary workouts, what has been the level of enthusiasm from the players?
Baker: I think it started back this off-season. Last year we went 3-7. We had four games going into the fourth quarter where we were either up a score or down a score and we ended up losing all four of those games. Obviously the end result was 3-7, but we could have easily been 7-3. So we’ve been focusing on finishing during the off-season. The guys in the weight room have made strides. We had great spring practices and we had bigger numbers than we’ve had since I’ve been here. Monday and Tuesday, we had 70 kids here. Last year, I think the first official practice that we had was 49 or 50. We were talking about it in the office the other day — I think we’ve added 20 kids.
JS: Coach, you’ve got a veteran-laden squad led by your son Brice at quarterback among others, that must be a significant advantage entering the season with guys who have been through the rigors of a football season in the Mid-State 3A Conference.
Baker: I would definitely agree with that. We are going to have at least six offensive linemen that started at least one game on our varsity roster this year. Obviously our quarterback is back. He’s knows the offense front to back and as far as that goes and he can tell all 11 what to do based on what they are giving him on defense. He’s been a great leader this summer and Maleek Bryant (WR/DB) is back. Everybody in the stadium knows we are trying to get him the ball someway, somehow which opens it up for those other guys like Centalius Graves, Avery Hester, Elijah Ward, Aidan Brust and Tyler Walker.
We’ve got some depth at running back too with Jake Chandler, Jace Verdi, Lane Powell and Cordae Griggs sharing reps. We want to keep everybody fresh because they are going to turn around and play defense too. Plus our quarterback is the second-leading returning tackler — he didn’t take many plays off last year. We are excited about it, but we are staying grounded and aren’t looking too far ahead. We are only trying to win each day and that’s all you can do is try to be 1-0 each day.
The Cougars host cross-county rival McMichael Aug. 18.