SANFORD — Russell Stone knows it. And so do the rest of the coaches in the newly aligned Cape Fear Valley Conference.
The Douglas Byrd Eagles are not only favored to win the league title, they might be the best team in all of 3-A football after playing in the 4-A state championship game a year ago.
But in a league that lost three schools — Harnett Central, Triton and South Johnston — but picked up two that dropped one classification, uncertainly about how the new football season will play is abundant.
Except for at the top.
“In a coaching sense, it’ll be like starting all over again,” said Gray’s Creek coach David Lovette, one of just two coaches from the first Cape Fear Valley Conference to still be in the league. “We’ll be seeing different people and we’ll have to get familiar with them.”
And there are a lot of new faces, and many of them got reacquainted at the league’s media day hosted by Southern Lee on Friday. Overhills’ Tim Karrs joins Lovette as the only other charter member of the Cape Fear Valley coaching fraternity, with Southern Lee, Union Pines and Western Harnett featuring new coaches, two of whom are in their first seasons as head coaches in high school football.
Joining them will be coaching legend Stone of Byrd, who’s won more than 220 games in more than 30 years on the sideline, and Westover’s Milton Butts, who has more than 25 years of coaching experience and brings the Wolverines into the 3-A class.
“You’re not going to outcoach people in this league,” said new Western Harnett coach George Coltharp, who takes over for the departed Mark Kirk and in his second head coaching stint after spending four years at Westover. “If you think you’re going to show up and out-X-and-O the coaches in this league, you’ve got a problem. In our league, it’s going to be about blocking and tackling. Nobody is going to be surprised by what you do.”
What would be surprising is if Byrd isn’t alone at the top of the league standings and the 3-A rankings at the end of the regular season.
But that doesn’t mean a Douglas Byrd conference championship is set in stone at least, the Eagles head coach doesn’t think so. But he does know what’s expected of his team.
“Nobody can see the future, and that’s the key for our kids,” Stone said. “Not only were we in a 4-A league, but it was some 4-A league all four teams in the 4-A championship games were in our conference. And just by pure numbers, (the Cape Fear Valley) exchanges two teams moving into 3-A for three teams moving up to 4-A. We know we have to keep the kids from getting complacent because we know the appearance of it. We’ve got to remember that we’re dealing with young kids here, and we got where we are because of people underestimating us.”
So where does Southern Lee fit into the new mix? After a disastrous 1-9 season under first-year coach Bill Maczko, who was under fire for much of the season from fans and parents of the players in the program, the Cavaliers are turning to Eric Puryear, who comes to Southern Lee after several college coaching stints over the course of eight years.
But Puryear isn’t concerned about what happened before he got the job. He’s focusing only on what lies ahead and to him, what lies ahead are winnable football games.
“It’s not about me being reasonable with my expectations; it’s about me coaching the kids, making them better and working hard,” Puryear said. “Honestly, I think we can win some games this year. We’ll be competitive. A lot of teams are in the same boat (in this league).”
Southern Lee, like the rest of the state’s prep schools, will hold its first official full practice on Saturday, beginning at noon. Puryear said on Friday that A.J. Jackson is likely to start at quarterback for the Cavaliers in a spread formation and that the defensive scheme with feature a 3-4 front.
Puryear, who was the defensive coordinator at Johnson C. Smith before becoming the defensive backs coach at Wingate last season, said the Cavaliers will be in full-on attack mode on defense.
“We’re not big up front, but we’re very athletic,” Puryear said. “And we will blitz. We’ll blitz on every play. There will not be one play where we don’t blitz, it’ll just be coming from different places.”
Overhills may be one the holdovers that could be ready to take the next step. The Jaguars made their first state playoff appearance under Karrs last season in the school’s four-year history, winning their last four regular season games before picking up the program’s first postseason victory. With its entire backfield returning intact, Overhills could be positioning itself for a move up the Cape Fear Valley ladder.
“Our numbers are up, and people are starting to think about football at Overhills and wanting to be a part of football here,” Karrs said. “We’re starting to get respect, and that’s what we’ve been looking for, and that’s what we’re selling the kids on.”
Like Southern Lee and Western Harnett, Union Pines will enter the 2009 season with its third coach in as many years. Ryan Riggan, who served on Elwood Baker’s staff with the Vikings two years ago before joining Pinecrest as an assistant last year, returns to Cameron for his first head coaching job.
Riggan is impressed with the conference as well.
“There are teams here that are experienced winners, have a lot of wins in the playoffs and do things the right way,” Riggan said. “That’s so valuable, and teams like Byrd and Westover have seen that kind of success over the past years.”
They’re likely to see it again this year. But there’s football to be played that will determine all of that.