High School Highlights

County football coaches cautious about start of practice

This time of year, high school football coaches are usually getting ready for a long summer of conditioning workouts with their teams in preparation for the start of official practice in North Carolina on August 1.

11 01 BillSochovkaBut the COVID-19 pandemic and lingering uncertainty over what kind of, if any, football season we’ll have this fall has the Cumberland County Schools senior high school football coaches taking a far more cautious look at what a return to the sport could mean.

None are more circumspect in their feelings about this fall than veteran Pine Forest coach Bill Sochovka. Like all of his fellow coaches, his main concern is the health and safety of his players and coaches. He’d like to wait and see what goes on in states that are opening up practice faster than North Carolina.

“A later date would give us a better understanding,’’ he said, adding he’d prefer to have preseason practice no earlier than July 1.

“People forget that high school sports, particularly football, is a natural petri dish for germs,’’ Sochovka said. “Anytime a kid gets a sniffle or a stomach bug, you’re going to have six or seven kids on the team wind up getting it.’’

11 02 jakethomasSochovka said the sport of football is already under the microscope for how it handles injuries because of the recent concern for the treatment of players who suffer concussions. “We’ve got to think about kids and safety first,’’ he said. “We’ve got to be smart about it.’’

Another concern is just what kind of football we’ll be playing when the sport first resumes. Jake Thomas, coach at Cape Fear, noted that the preliminary practice guidelines set down by the National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations turn practice into more of a case of strength and conditioning than actual game practice.

“Screening every athlete and coach every time you meet with them seems not financially feasible,’’ Thomas said. “Schools already have limited budgets, and now football games without fans and a band
will financially destroy high school athletics and many schools.’’

Thomas thinks coaches may need to look for pre-determined risk factors like a respiratory condition and possibly not allow at-risk athletes to come out for the team.

“At some point, we have to go back to living life and stop hiding in fear,’’ he said.

Terry Sanford coach Bruce McClelland said his staff has already worked out a rotation of players to limit numbers in the school’s weight room, along with plans to sanitize all areas used by players and team staff.

“There are so many different professional opinions I have listened to — it’s become confusing,’’ he said. “I am honestly hoping we get some good news in the near future from the medical field that will help make this an easier decision.’’

Seventy-First coach Duran McLaurin would love to be practicing, but he’s cognizant of what that could entail. “I’m very concerned with keeping my players safe more than any reward I can think of right now,’’ he said.

Regardless of what happens, the advice given by new E.E. Smith head coach Andy Karcher is likely the wisest. “The biggest takeaway from this is to be patient, keep everything and everyone as clean as possible and don’t take any unnecessary risks,’’ he said.

Many factors will determine status of return of fall sports

14 01 Pineforeststadium Reopening is the key word in sports at all levels right now. Every day, there are new projections for when the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball will resume — and if the National Football League will start on time this fall.

Along with leaders of youth-level sports and the NCAA, the NFHS and its member state associations are exploring all options for conducting sports this fall. And while we all want answers, the truth is that there are more questions than answers at this point.

14 02 Jack britt stadiumDr. Anthony Fauci, the leading national medical authority throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, recently told ESPN that “the virus will make the decision for us” on whether sports will return this fall. His comments underscore the need for leaders of all levels of sport in the United States to exercise great caution as we re-engage in activities.
Without a doubt, education will play a larger role in the decision-making process for high school programs than for nonscholastic programs. Despite the significant loss of revenue that could occur at some levels if programs remain closed, health and safety concerns must take priority when it comes to reopening the sport or activity.

At the high school level, sports and other activity programs will most likely not return until schools reopen. High school sports and performing arts are education-based programs and complete the learning process on a day-to-day basis. As such, academics during the school day and sports and other activities after school are inseparable.
 Could any of those sports and activities return without fans? That option is certainly not one schools favor, but it is a very real possibility. While a few state associations opted for that arrangement to complete state basketball tournaments, that is not a desired ongoing plan for school sports. Besides, this troubling question would have to be addressed: If it is unsafe for fans in the stands, is it safe for the students to participate?

  Students, parents and other fans in the stands cheering for and supporting student-athletes, and applauding from the theatre audience, are among the most wonderful aspects of education-based activities. Before accepting that arrangement, efforts will continue to make attending events a safe experience for everyone.

While we remain uncertain as to the timetable for the return of high school sports and other activities, we believe that when these programs return — and they will return — that everyone will bring renewed zeal to provide the 12 million participants in these programs the best experience possible.

One of the challenges to solving the crystal ball of high school sports and activities this fall is the uncertainty of the spread of the virus as states begin to reopen this month. The NFHS will continue to work with its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee on an ongoing basis to provide the most updated information.

With the non-negotiable tenet of safety for student activity participants, expect every avenue to be pursued so that students can be involved in football, soccer, volleyball, field hockey, speech, debate, music and many other school activities this fall.  

Gray’s Creek cross country honored for academic success

11 01 faith francisThe COVID-19 pandemic has ground activity on high school athletic fields to a halt, but there’s still plenty going on off the field. Here are a few items of interest:

  • The Gray’s Creek High School boys cross country team was the only Cumberland County squad to be recognized by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association’s 2019-20 Scholar Athlete Program.

The program annually recognizes students and teams for their academic success. To qualify, the combined unweighted grade point average of the team must be 3.1 or higher during the semester when the team is competing.

11 02 kellymelvinGray’s Creek earned a 3.75 GPA, placing third in the state behind first-place North Davidson at 3.84 and second-place Crest at 3.8.

The win earned the school a $100 prize.

  • Fayetteville Technical Community College is using the lights at J.P. Riddle Stadium to join in a national program to honor this year’s graduating high school seniors who are missing out on their final year of sports or performing arts because of the pandemic.

The idea apparently started in Texas, spread to Colorado and then took off nationally, as high schools turned on the lights on their athletic fields at 8:20 p.m., 20:20 in military time, and left them on for 20 minutes and 20 seconds to honor the class of 2020.

11 03 thurstonSteve Driggers of FTCC said the lights were turned on the last two Fridays this month at Riddle Stadium and will be lit a final time on Friday,
May 22.

  • Congratulations to Faith Francis of the Westover High School girls’ basketball team. Francis has been selected to the East roster for this summer’s North Carolina Coaches Association East-West All-Star basketball game in Greensboro.

If restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic will allow, the game will be played Monday, July 20, at the Greensboro Coliseum.

Francis led Westover to a 21-7 record and a second-place finish in the Patriot Athletic Conference behind state 3-A co-champion E.E. Smith.

A 6-foot-1 wing player, Francis averaged 15.4 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. She made 23 three-point field goals. She was named the Patriot Athletic Conference girls Player of the Year.

  • Two Cumberland County schools recently hired head coaches. Kelly Melvin is the new volleyball coach at Cape Fear High School while Thurston Robinson will coach the girls basketball team at Terry Sanford.

According to a press release posted on social media, Melvin is a graduate of Douglas Byrd High School with degrees in physical education from Methodist University and North Carolina A&T.

She has been a teacher and athletic director at Albritton Middle School for 28 years.

She worked with the Cape Fear volleyball program since 2016, serving as head junior varsity coach and assistant varsity coach.

Robinson’s hiring was also announced on social media. He has coached for more than 20 years in the Fayetteville area, coaching both boys’ and girls basketball.

His teams have won championships at both the state and national level.

He has also had teams appear in major showcase tournaments around the country.

  • Proponents of adding a shot clock to high school basketball suffered another defeat recently when the National Federation of State High School Associations announced the high school basketball rule changes for the 2020-21 season.

A proposal for a national rule requiring a shot clock, along with a rule allowing individual states to adopt one if they desired, were not approved.

In a press release from the National Federation, Theresia Wynns, NFHS director of sports, said members of the Basketball Rules Committee discussed the pros and cons of adding the shot clock and will continue to study the issue.

  • One rule that was updated involved what happens if no coach is available to be on the bench because the head coach has been removed for unsportsmanlike conduct.

The new rule says if a coach is removed from the bench and no authorized school personnel are available to take over the team, the game will be declared a forfeit.

  • Another rule was clarified to state that officials don’t have to give a coach a warning before assessing a technical foul. The existing rule gave the impression that a warning was needed before calling a technical.
  • A new rule was added for clock operators, who are now required to sound a warning signal to start a 15-second period to replace an injured or disqualified player. A second warning is given at the end of 15 seconds to alert teams it’s time to prepare for play.
  • A complete list of the rule changes for next season can be found at www.nfhs.org. Go to Activities and Sports at the top of the home page then click on Basketball.

Strunk looks back, forward at COVID-19

13 strunkFew people are better qualified to talk about the current state of high school athletics in North Carolina than Rick Strunk. Strunk joined the staff at the North Carolina High School Athletic Association in 1985 and spent 30 years there before stepping down in 2015.

During his early years with the NCHSAA, Strunk had a conversation with longtime NCHSAA leader Charlie Adams about what events could disrupt high school sports on a statewide scale.

Adams told Strunk one thing would be a major war that could put restrictions on travel.

The second thing Adams said was an epidemic.

Strunk said during his time with the NCHSAA, they did have to deal with a situation like that, but it was nothing on the scale of the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was a measles outbreak,’’ Strunk said, adding that it was confined to one area of the state. “School systems went under quarantine for a limited period of time to try and track down the source of the measles.’’

Schools in that area developed a workaround, redoing their athletic schedules and playing games against schools that weren’t under quarantine, then once the quarantine was lifted, making up all the postponed games against the schools that were in lockdown.

He thinks the NCHSAA has done the best job possible trying to make decisions within the framework of the restrictions that have been set down in North Carolina to curb the spread of the pandemic, and he thinks coaches, athletes, parents and fans need to understand that the NCHSAA lacks the freedom to make plans for the future at will.

“When the governor says something is going to happen on this date, you can’t make your own decision to run counter to that,’’ he said. “Health and safety of the participants is paramount. That is what North Carolina has focused on.’’

Strunk said he has stayed in contact with members of the NCHSAA staff during the pandemic, and hopes the public appreciates this has been a painful process for them. “They know the value of high school sports and that kids want to play,’’ he said. “I really feel bad for seniors who didn’t have a season in the spring because it was stopped so early.’’

At the same time, he had nothing but praise for how school systems and coaches are still reaching out to support both students and athletes.
“Schools have had to pivot quickly,’’ he said. “Without much run-up they had to put classes online.’’

He said coaches have had to design strength conditioning programs for homebound athletes who don’t have access to gyms or weights.

In the face of everything, Strunk is trying to be optimistic and hopeful that by this fall, some degree of normalcy will return and coaches and athletes will be back on the field.
“First is the decision about school,’’ he said. “That will drive a lot of things.’’

He’s also concerned about if fans will feel safe going to games and if small businesses will be able to provide financial support to local teams after being closed.

Instead of a light switch, Strunk thinks the return to sports will be more like a dimmer switch. “The safety of the public, the athletes, the coaches, the fans, all of those are the prime directive in this case,’’ he said.

County schools lead nation in NFHS coaches education

14 scott graham EPppwcVTZEo unsplashVernon Aldridge, student activities director for the Cumberland County Schools, has long stressed the importance of the county’s coaches taking courses to make them better at their jobs.

That commitment recently earned the county national recognition as the National Federation of State High School Associations listed three county schools as first in the nation to reach Level I status on the NFHS School Honor Roll program.

The three schools are Gray’s Creek High School, John Griffin Middle School and Pine Forest
Middle School.

Since the initial three schools were announced, five more have been added to the list. They are Pine Forest High School, South View Middle School, Hope Mills Middle School, Spring Lake Middle School and Anne Chesnutt Middle School.

To make the list, a school must have at least 90% of the full-time coaches on its staff complete four courses offered online by the NFHS.

The courses are Fundamentals of Coaching, Concussion in Sports, Sudden Cardiac Arrest, and Protecting Students from Abuse.

There are two more levels schools can achieve by completing additional NFHS courses.

Because all the county schools have been taking part in the NFHS initiative, Aldridge is optimistic it won’t be long before every county school is recognized for at least reaching Level I.

“The more we take these courses, the higher quality our coaches are,’’ Aldridge said. “I think it enhances the experience for the student-athletes.’’

He added all coaches in Cumberland County Schools have been required to take the four NFHS courses before the School Honor Roll program was started last December.

In addition, all county schools coaches must receive training in performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation and using an automated external defibrillator.

“My goal is to have all our schools to be Level 3 in two years,’’ Aldridge said.

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