High School Highlights

Heat issues in focus as fall practice opens

14 Vernon Aldridge copyAfter consecutive months of record-setting heat in June and July, high school football players and other outdoor fall sports athletes return to the practice fields in force Aug. 1 for the first official day of North Carolina High School Athletic Association preseason workouts. 

Heat is always a concern for athletes in Fayetteville and Cumberland County, but the string of triple-digit heat index days that were recorded during the last two months makes the challenge of keeping athletes safe in the heat a major focus heading into August.

Vernon Aldridge, student activities director for Cumberland County Schools, said heat awareness is always a priority for his office and the coaches and athletes he helps to oversee.

“Every athletic trainer is equipped with a wet bulb, and there’s a heat protocol for what’s supposed to take place at different temperatures on the wet bulb,’’ Aldridge said.

The wet bulb Aldridge referred to is a specially designed thermometer that is covered with a water-soaked cloth. Used in conjunction with a standard dry bulb thermometer, it measures the relative humidity of the air. The reading warns when precautions, up to and including suspending outdoor practice, should be taken.

The NCHSAA Handbook requires constant observation and supervision of all athletes at outdoor practices when the wet bulb temperature reaches 88-89.9 degrees. Once it hits 90 or above, all practice should be suspended. If that happens during an actual game, mandatory breaks are required.

Aldridge said Cumberland County has long adhered to those policies, while also making sure athletes get frequent water breaks and that water is readily available in all practice situations.

“We have misters that will be out to help keep the players cool,’’ he said. If a true heat emergency takes place, each school needs to have an immersion pool on-site so they can immediately put a player suffering from any symptoms of heat illness in the pool and cool them off.

Aldridge said that specifically in the case of football, where all the extra equipment increases the danger of heat illness, teams are discouraged from practicing between the hours of 11 a.m. and 6 p.m.

“Most of our football teams practice either early in the morning or late in the evening,’’ Aldridge said. “If for some reason the heat does come in earlier, I send out emails to the schools letting them know we are going to extend that time to 10 a.m. or 7 p.m. We keep a close eye on the heat index and try to make those decisions to keep the kids safe.

“That will be our No. 1 priority.’’

Pictured: Vernon Aldridge

After 50 years, my fling with football remains vivid

13 Milton BardenIs it possible that it’s been 50 years? Am I really that old?

Even though the years are piling up, that August of 1969 remains vivid in this aging mind. It was my one and only fling with trying to be a member of a real football team. 

Let me take you back those 50 years to the North Carolina mountain town of Bryson City. I was fresh from reading "Instant Replay," the classic book by Jerry Kramer of the Green Bay Packers. It recounted his personal observations from the last NFL championship season the Packers enjoyed under the great Vince Lombardi.

I also bought a book by the legendary Frank Gifford that dealt with the basics of the game of football. How to block. How to tackle. All the important stuff.

I was ready for battle. So I showed up that first day of practice at Swain County High School’s 1950s-era gymnasium, where our locker room was housed in the basement.

My coach, the late Milton Barden, was far kinder to me than he should have been. I was about 5-feet-8-inches tall on a good day, weighed all of 180 pounds and had never lifted a weight in my life. In spite of all that, he let me go out for the team. 

Coach Barden wanted to give us the full training camp experience, just like the professionals, so we actually brought cots and mattresses and sleeping bags to our gym and lived there for two weeks. 

Twice a day, we boarded our ancient activity bus, lovingly called the Meat Wagon, and rode the half-dozen miles or so to our practice field, a gorgeous place that was an abandoned driving range on a nearby hilltop.

We would take turns slamming into the seven-man blocking sled, tasked with driving it from one end of the practice field to the other. At the end of the field was heaven, a spigot rising out of the ground with the coldest mountain spring water you could imagine. It felt even colder after a hot afternoon of banging the sled. 

It was not long after those two weeks were over that I came to the conclusion that the body the good Lord put me in on this Earth was not designed for this kind of activity. So, I went to Coach Barden and asked if he needed someone to be a manager. He kindly gave me the job.

I spent that year mostly on the sidelines, figuring my playing days were over. We put together a 6-2-1 record going into our final game. Unfortunately, the two losses and the tie were against the three teams we had to beat in our split conference to make the state playoffs.

That left us with a final game against Towns County, Georgia, a team we were told hadn’t won a game and was down to about a dozen players. So Coach Barden decided to let us and them have some fun. He dressed every able-bodied player on the team, including yours truly, the water boy.

We all played that final night of the season, and we had one of the highest-scoring games in the history of North Carolina football. I played my part in letting the guys from Towns County have their fun. I let a guy whiz by me on an 80-yard kickoff return, and I tackled another guy three yards into the end zone after he scored the conversion.

The result was an 81-46 Swain County win. That score is still listed in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association record book if you want to look it up.

Tomorrow we begin another high school football season in North Carolina. My best wishes to all of the young men who will be taking the practice field. I encourage you all to dream big. Every night you play, you could wind up getting into the record book like my team did — even if you’re not a star.

Pictured: Coach Milton Barden


d: Coach Milton Barden

Terry Sanford has veterans, but also lots of holes

Editor’s note: This is part of a series on Cumberland County high school spring football workouts.

17 1 Ezemdi UdohTerry Sanford football coach Bruce McClelland lost 52 seniors over the last two seasons. His new team begins fall practice Aug. 1.

“We’ve got a ton of young guys and new guys,’’ McClelland said. “We’ve got a lot of holes to fill in key positions.’’

Fortunately, there’s some talent returning at a couple of key spots that should make things easier. Among the biggest returners is an experienced quarterback, Jacob Knight, who’s been waiting in the wings behind past stars Christian Jayne and Davidjohn Herz.

“He’s been good enough to play the last two years,’’ McClelland said of Knight. The fact that both Jayne and Herz are now playing minor league baseball is a good indication of the level of talent McClelland has enjoyed at the quarterback position.

Another player who will have to step up his game is running back Dorian Clark, who shared ball-carrying duties with Leonard “Flo” Mosley. 

Both Clark and Mosley ran for 1,000 yards last season. Clark had 1,662 yards to Mosley’s 1,423. Clark scored 13 touchdowns, Mosley 15.

“Dorian will have to tote the ball a little bit more with Flo gone,’’ McClelland said. Helping to block for him will be returning lineman Roscoe Blue.

Two key All-Patriot Athletic Conference players return on defense, lineman Elijah Morris and linebacker Jackson Deaver.

17 2 Elijah MorrisMorris, a defensive tackle, said spring practice has been about fitting new players into open positions and getting back to the goal of winning the conference title.

“I think we could really be a good team this year,’’ he said. “There’s a lot of leadership at every position.’’

He added teamwork is the key. “Instead of depending on one person for the whole team, we can play off each other’s strengths,’’ he said. “Working together. That’s the main thing.’’

One of the biggest players back is tight end and defensive end Ezemdi Udoh. Honorable mention all-conference at tight end last year, Udoh’s stock rose sharply after the season because he received more than a dozen college scholarship offers. He has orally committed to North Carolina State University.

It likely didn’t hurt Udoh that his brother Oli from Elon was taken by the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL draft.

“He’s 6-feet-5 and already up to 240 pounds,’’ McClelland said of Ezemdi Udoh.

McClelland expects another close race for the Patriot Athletic Conference title. “I think it’s going to be deeper this year,’’ he said. “I really think Douglas Byrd and Westover are making strides. It’s anybody’s conference.’’

Pictured top to bottom: Ezemdi Udoh, Elijah Morris

Ponytail softball squad headed to Dixie Youth World Series

IMG 20190624 130449 01Of the four Hope Mills teams headed to a Dixie Youth World Series over the next several days, the one with the biggest challenge is the 12U Ponytails softball squad.
That’s because they just captured their state title last week and have had the shortest time to raise money to help cover the nearly 13-hour trip plus lodging and food for the 12 players on the team and their coaches and families coming along.
“My biggest concern is some of the families having to bear the financial burden after having a short turn from having to be in Wilmington for a week,’’ said head coach Steven Welsh. “Competition wise, I put this team up against anybody else.’’
The team has relied on its ability to play well together during the run through the district and state tournaments, Welsh said.
The top offensive stars are catcher Jordynn Parnell and third baseman Kaylee Cook.
Parnell has a .731 batting average with six runs batted in while Cook is hitting .550 with 13 runs batted in.
Paige Ford and Annie Ratliff head a deep pitching staff for the Hope Mills team. Ford has recorded 13 strikeouts in 14 innings while Ratliff has 18 strikeouts in 12 innings.
Welsh said the team’s biggest strength may be defense. “They are a very tough team to score on,’’ he said.
The town of Hope Mills is having a sendoff Wednesday at 5 p.m. for all four Dixie Youth teams that will be headed to World Series play.
The event will be held at the field at Municipal Park immediately behind the Parks and Recreation Building.
There will be live raffles for gift coupons from local businesses along with a 50/50 drawing to help raise money for the trip.
“I’m really excited for these young ladies,’’ Welsh said. “They’ve played superb and hard to get here. I’m just excited for these girls to play on a stage of this magnitude at this age.’’
Front row (left to right): Saniyah Leach, Alexis Walters, Annie Ratliff, Ruby Minshew, Madalyn Clark, Kayleigh Brewington
Second row (left to right): Jamya Harris, Jordynn Parnell, Hannah Welsh, Paige Ford, Kaylie Cook, Carly Bailey
Back row (coaches left to right): Tadd Minshew, Steven Welsh, Chris Bailey

Byrd skid ends, but Eagles lack experience for 2019

16 zyon McEachinEditor’s note: This is part of a series on Cumberland County high school spring football workouts.

After back-to-back 0-11 seasons, Douglas Byrd finally got in the win column last year with a 4-7 record that included 3-5 in the Patriot Athletic Conference. While head coach Mike Paroli was glad to see some improvement, he’s concerned that building on the positives of last season will be difficult this fall.

“We really only have eight returners off that team and only four seniors,’’ he said. “We had some great seniors that will be difficult to replace. And we have the production of Earlee Melvin, which is very difficult to replace.’’

Melvin, who came to Byrd from Cape Fear, sparked the Eagle offense a year ago with a Cumberland County Schools best of 1,713 yards from scrimmage and 20 rushing touchdowns.

There will be a big load on four-year starter John Carroll, a versatile player who could be at quarterback, running back or wide receiver for the Eagles.

As a running back last season, he gained 266 yards and scored three touchdowns.

Alton Simmons, another Cape Fear transfer, will also be counted on at running back. He rushed for 201 yards and three touchdowns for Cape Fear last season.

Another key returner is Zyon McEachin in the offensive line, who will man the left tackle position.

“This year we’re trying to continue the legacy Coach Bob Paroli built and trying to give Coach Mike Paroli a legacy to build on,’’ McEachin said. “We want to make our record better than we had last year.’’

McEachin said the current Byrd football team is committed to growing the program. “We want to try to get connected to the middle schools so we can have some middle schoolers come over and help build the team, make the population better on the team,’’ he said. “We have to replace the players that are moving on, fill in the spots.’’

McEachin said the goal for this year is to be a better role model for the younger players. “We want to leave a good footprint on the field so they have someone to look up to when we move on,’’ he said.

Paroli expects the Patriot Athletic Conference to again be a tough league. “You’ve got the 4-A teams (South View and Pine Forest) and then Cape Fear and Terry Sanford, which in reality are still 4-A teams,’’ he said.

He’s not sure Byrd will be a serious contender for the state playoffs this season. “I don’t think we’re in that conversation yet,’’ he said.

“Maybe the year after this one, with only four seniors starting, we should return most of the team, if we can get a good ninth grade class in here and keep them with us.’’

Pictured: Zyon McEachin


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