High School Highlights

SAAC members react to COVID-19 situation

12 SAACE.J. McArthur and Colin Baumgartner are both students and athletes at Jack Britt High School who have been directly impacted by the statewide shutdown of sports for all athletes at member schools of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

But McArthur, who plays basketball, and Baumgartner, a cross country, track and field and swimming competitor, have a little different perspective on the effect the COVID-19 pandemic is having on their peers. McArthur and Baumgartner are the Region IV representatives to the NCHSAA’s Student Advisory Athletic Committee.

The SAAC is made up of 16 athletes representing each of the eight geographical regions of the NCHSAA. In normal times, they travel to the NCHSAA office in Chapel Hill one Sunday each month to discuss topics of importance to the state’s high school athletes.

Though the pandemic has forced McArthur and Baumgartner and their fellow committee members to hold their meetings virtually over the last couple of months, they are still doing the business of the committee while also discussing the challenges of trying to reopen the state to practice and competitive sports by the time the fall season begins.
Barring a late change by the NCHSAA, many of the state’s school systems were scheduled to begin off-season summer workouts on July 6.

As a basketball player, McArthur was among the athletes who was able to complete play for the 2019-20 season, but he empathizes with those who weren’t as fortunate as he was.

“Most people were really devastated when their season ended,’’ he said.

Baumgartner said one of the biggest challenges of not being able to hold structured practices with teammates is developing the discipline to work out alone. “You’ve got to make the best of what you’ve got,’’ he said.

McArthur said many athletes he knows are speaking together daily to encourage each other. Some are holding small group workout sessions, either together or in some cases virtually.

His biggest concern remains that his peers make sure any workouts they are holding are being done with precautions against spreading the virus. “Some kids are just being kids while others are taking precautions,’’ McArthur said.

While no one is happy with not being able to practice or play, Baumgartner thinks most of the people he’s been in contact with are doing the best they can to observe the COVID-19 restrictions in hopes of returning to a more normal order of things as quickly as possible.

"I'm very understanding of what's going on," he said. 

Looking to the fall and hoping for a return to normal competition, McArthur said he agrees with what most people in education have said about a return to athletics. If the students aren’t able to be in the school building on a daily basis, the consensus is that athletic competition shouldn’t be allowed either.

“If we aren’t safe enough to be around each other, what makes sports different?’’ McArthur said. “It’s risk and reward. If we risk it now and things happen, then everything is shut back down. Right now it’s the safety of the kids, coaches and officials.’’

McArthur noted the complicated nature of COVID-19 as a concern, adding
that even people who survive the disease are being diagnosed with various complications. “Kids should take precautions,’’ he said, “if not for themselves,
for their loved ones, the people in their house and everybody else.’’

There has been some discussion of moving some or all fall sports to the spring season, if needed, to allow the COVID-19 curve more time to flatten. Baumgartner sees some benefit in doing that, but added it could also create problems, especially for those athletes who play multiple sports and might have to choose between sports if their favorites were played at the same time.

Baumgartner doesn’t think it would be a good idea to allow some sports where it is easier to practice social distancing to resume while preventing other athletes in sports with greater contact from resuming practice and play.

“I feel that would create a lot of friction between contact and noncontact sports,’’ he said. “We could catch a lot of flak for promoting something like that.’’


Karcher discusses coaching in the midst of COVID-19

12 AndyKarcherThe months leading up to the summer break are normally a time when coaches at North Carolina High School Athletic Association member schools are allowed to have off-season conditioning workouts with their teams if they coach a sport that’s not in season during winter or spring.

But that hasn’t been the case for E.E. Smith football coach Andy Karcher, who took over the Golden Bull program in late February. Barely three weeks after being hired and joining the faculty at Smith, Karcher found himself cut off from his team as the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shutdown of high school sports in North Carolina.

Now Karcher, along with other coaches in Cumberland County, is anxiously awaiting the arrival of July 6, when they will be permitted to begin conditioning workouts with their teams under stringent safety guidelines suggested by the National Federation of State High School Associations and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

Karcher, who came to Smith after serving as an assistant coach under Bill Sochovka at Pine Forest, got a few weeks to see some of his football players in weightlifting class at Smith, but has since been limited to only virtual contact with them.

“We’re putting in a new offense with new terminology,’’ Karcher said. “We’re trying to do as much as we can with the mental game.’’

One of the real challenges of only being able to meet virtually, Karcher said, is getting his athletes used to accountability, showing up on time, or showing up at all.
“For me it’s been extremely stressful trying to move forward,’’ he said.

He said he’s done the best he can talking to his players about the importance of maintaining their conditioning, taking part in regular workouts at their homes.
“I think when we come together, we’ll be able to hit the ground running,’’ Karcher said.

But there are still questions, he added, noting that between answering questions from his players and his new coaching staff, they are all finding themselves in totally uncharted waters.

“It’s really challenging me to find creative ways to get things done,’’ he said. The challenge has been complicated by the fact that whatever ideas Karcher comes up with, he has to make sure they take into account the need for things like social distancing and the other restrictions still in place because of the pandemic.

He praised members of his new coaching staff for adapting to the challenge as well. “They have taken it upon themselves to attend virtual coaching seminars,’’ he said. “They are trying to learn more about what we’re trying to do.’’

Karcher has also reached out to coaching friends like Sochovka and Ben Penny at Triton High School for suggestions on what to do. “It’s about talking and sharing,’’ Karcher said.

One of the biggest things he can’t control, and won’t be able to deal with until the first official day of fall practice when it comes, is learning how his team will deal with the physical aspect of football.

“Football is a contact sport,’’ he said. “As soon as we can get back to some normalcy, the kids’ spirits and our spirits as coaches will lift.

“The biggest thing now is trying to come up with a plan that is going to make sure the kids are mentally ready.’’

The most important thing Karcher wants to teach is teamwork, finding out how much his players know and trust each other so they can get through the challenge together.
“That’s what I love about football,” Karcher said. “It’s a sport that translates to everyday life after high school.’’

He hopes his players will adjust to the restrictions of COVID-19 workouts quickly, but most important of all, that they stick to them. “Follow the procedure as you’re supposed to follow it,’’ he said. “Make sure everybody is staying safe.

“This might be the new norm for awhile. We have to be flexible and do what we can do. We want to make sure everybody is doing what they are supposed to do so we can arrive at the season and it (the restrictions) won’t be prolonged any longer than it needs to be.’’

Arrington tells Westover story in new book

14 bookFrom his high school days playing football for legendary coach Herman Boone to taking the disaster that was the Westover girls’ basketball team and turning it into a state champion, Gene Arrington enjoyed one of the most amazing athletic careers anyone could dream of.

Now, after listening to the urging of friends and family, he’s written a book about his experiences.

“Rise of the Wolverines: The Making of a Titan and Beyond’’ tells Arrington’s story from his days under Boone at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, to his years turning the Westover girls basketball team into the best in the state. 

Arrington’s sister, Ethel Delores Arrington, actually did the writing, as Coach Arrington sat down with her and dictated the story of his life.
“My sister had written a book before and she got right in there with me,’’ Arrington said. 

When Arrington took over the Westover girls’ program, then Wolverine principal John Smith said everyone warned him it was a dead-end job and had the record to prove it.
At the time, the Wolverine girls were mired in an 87-game losing streak.

“Westover had been kind of labeled as a nonproductive type of school,’’ Arrington said. “I wanted them to know Westover could do anything any other school could do and win, and they did.’’

Arrington’s formula for success wasn’t anything complicated. “Confidence,’’ he said. “Those girls were confident they could beat anybody.’’

He said his guidance as a coach came largely from the legendary Boone, whose story was featured in the 2000 film “Remember the Titans,’’ starring Denzel Washington, which shared the story of Boone’s 1971 T.C. Williams team and the challenges he faced coaching at the height of public school integration.

“He was my mentor,’’ Arrington said. “He was my buddy. Most of the things I did were a mirror of him.’’

Boone, who died of lung cancer last December, wrote the foreword for Arrington’s book.

Arrington snapped the Westover girls’ losing skid in his first season there with a win over perennial Cumberland County girls’ basketball power Pine Forest. 

In his 15 seasons at Westover, Arrington only had three teams with losing records. From 2004-10, his teams won 20 or more games every season, winning or sharing the conference basketball title six times. Health reasons led him to retire before the 2013 season.

The Wolverines had their best season in 2008, when they went 30-2 and defeated West Charlotte 58-53 at N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum for the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4-A girls’ basketball title. Along the way, they knocked off a 30-0 Raleigh Wakefield team in the semifinal round.

In the title game against West Charlotte, Arrington recalled taking a timeout with about five minutes to play and his team trailing by eight points.

Arrington said he usually did the talking during timeouts, but he recalled a moment reminiscent of one of the final scenes in the famed high school basketball movie “Hoosiers.”

Linda Aughburns, one of the stars of the state title team, looked at Arrington in that huddle and said to her coach, “We got this,’’ he recalled. 
In January of 2015, Westover paid tribute to Arrington’s outstanding career by naming the gym at the school in his honor.

Arrington said his hope for people who read the book is they will get a simple message from it. “I hope they’ll realize perseverance, building confidence, faith in each other and believing are the keys to success,’’ he said. 

The book is not available in stores. For information on purchasing it, go to www.coachgene.net. The cost is $17 plus $5 for shipping and handling. To 
place orders for multiple copies, email etheldelores@gmail.com.

It’s a good time to make the vultures impatient

15 01 billThere’s an old cartoon that shows a couple of vultures sitting on a branch, scanning the horizon for carrion to eat and finding nothing.

One vulture turns to the other and says, “To heck with patience, I’m going to kill something.’’

That sentiment isn’t too far off from the frustration high school coaches and athletes around North Carolina and the Cape Fear region are feeling as they wait for the COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted so they can return to practice.

The North Carolina High School Athletic Association finally opened the door to the return to off-season workouts recently, using guidelines established both by the National Federation of State High School Associations and the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

15 02 vernon copyBut many of the state’s larger school systems, including Cumberland County, decided to hold off and delay the start of practice until Monday, July 6.

A conversation I had recently with Bill Sochovka, the dean of Cumberland County’s head football coaches, had me agreeing with the county’s plan to wait.

Sochovka had the same opinion, for a simple but solid reason. He wanted the county to take its time and see what happens at other schools that open up, examine what practices are in place, what works, what doesn’t and how to safely open the doors for the athletes and coaches in the safest manner possible.

Vernon Aldridge, the student activities director for the Cumberland County Schools, is also in the corner for caution, but for some different reasons. Aldridge wants to take time to make sure each of the county schools will have supplies on hand that they wouldn’t normally stock, things like hand sanitizer and other materials to make sure everyone stays as germ-free as possible.

With recent spikes in new cases since some COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, it’s clear everyone needs to take this illness seriously and continue to do everything possible to flatten the curve.

Nobody wants to see a return to practice and games more than I do. But I also don’t want to see an early return lacking proper precautions causing further spread of COVID-19.
Instead of copying the vultures, let’s adopt the philosophy of one of my favorite Clint Eastwood characters, Gunny Highway from the movie "Heartbreak Ridge." As Gunny Highway said, let’s improvise, adapt and overcome, and make practice and play as safe as it can possibly be.

Friends mourn passing of Pine Forest's Norton

12 jasonnortonJason Norton was remembered by his peers as someone who was easy to talk with, who wanted to win, but above all did everything for the benefit of the athletes at his school.

Norton, 47, who served as athletic director at Pine Forest since 2015, after an outstanding career as both an athlete and coach in his native Richmond County, died earlier this month after a lengthy battle with cancer.

He is survived by his wife, Lauren and sons Alex, Kevin and Jase.

Norton was an all-American placekicker at Catawba College, while playing for two state championship football teams at Richmond Senior and coaching a third.
He joined the staff at Pine Forest as athletic director in 2015, continuing to work there until the disease forced him to step down after the 2019 school year.

“He was very genuine,’’ said Pine Forest principal David Culbreth. “When he came to Cumberland County, he was excited to have the opportunity to be an administrator and an athletic director. It made everything easier with the enthusiasm and energy he brought.’’

“I don’t think you could have met a nicer, kinder person than Jason,’’ said Vernon Aldridge, student activities director for the Cumberland County Schools. “His ability to build relationships and be a good listener is what drew people to him.’’

Chad Barbour was the athletic director at South View when he first crossed paths with Norton and they became close friends. Barbour is now principal at Cumberland Polytechnic High School.

“He wanted the whole program to be successful and he wanted to get the best people in the positions he had,’’ Barbour said. “He had high expectations for the way students were supposed to conduct themselves.’’

One of Norton’s closest friends was David May, who coached with him at Hamlet Junior High School and was on the coaching staff at Pine Forest when Norton became athletic director.

“He’s worn so many hats in his life, coaching, teaching and being a father and a husband,’’ May said. “I can’t tell you how many people he’s taken to football camps all over the country with his boys that wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go.

“I know he’d be looking down right now amazed at all the love and support he’s receiving, how highly people thought of him. He wasn’t a vain type of guy who looked for praise.’’

During his battle with cancer, Norton received three major awards, including the Braveheart Award from the N.C. Athletic Directors Association, the Tony Simeon Courage Award from the N.C. High School Athletic Association and most recently the Stuart Scott Courage Award from HighSchoolOT.com.

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