This is the time of year that high school football coaches put in extra time.
The late Glenn Nixon made himself physically ill in 1979 as he prepared Clayton during the 2A playoffs. He kept watching film, looking for any little thing that might make a difference as he prepared his club for a championship game against Swain County. He searched for an unnoticed tendency, a hidden weakness, the way to block a punt, anything for an edge.
“You know how hard your players have worked to get this far,” he said at the time. “You want to make sure you’re working harder.”
His doctor’s diagnosis? Too much coffee. Too many cigarettes. Not enough sleep.
Cigarettes aren’t as much of a problem for many coaches now, but the hours of tape study and the odd hours are the same.
The coaches who will send their squads into the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs Friday still have their classroom duties, plus the extra time needed to prepare for the biggest games of the season.
“To tell the truth, we all may over prepare at this point,” said Garner coach Nelson Smith, whose club reached the 4AA finals in 2011. “You keep looking and you see something and you try to put it in, in practice. Somebody is going to get confused. But you keep looking for something. You don’t want to miss anything.”
Leesville Road coach Chad Smothers, whose club plays at Garner on Friday night, said he does watch more film than usual, but he also continuously reminds himself that he needs to trust the system.
“This time of year we have played 12 games and we just have to trust our system of game planning opponents,” he said. “I find when I start getting into overkill with the film watching I start seeing ghosts, things that aren’t there.
“Our philosophy ... is to just do what we have done all season.”
Cleveland coach Mark Morris, whose Rams play at Wilson Hunt, said he spends extra time finding out about his opponents’ opponents.
“You watch the film, but what are you watching?” he said. “When I watch my opponents’ tape, I want to know how good the other team is.”
But for the most part, he tries to keep the same routine each week. The staff films all practices and the group watches their tapes and their opponents’ tapes every day.
“This late in the season you are hopefully far enough along that you can add a little something if you need to, but basically you’re going to do what you do best, not something you are adding,” Morris said.
Most coaches prepare their game plans on Saturday and Sunday and introduce the plans to the teams on Monday. Inspiration does not just come from watching game tape.
Smith, for example, recently took a breather from breaking down tapes to watch the movie “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.” He was struck by how the commander used deception. Smith incorporated more disguise into the Garner defense for last week’s 76-34 win over Wakefield.
“Everybody knew we were going to rush the quarterback, but we tried to hide who was coming,” he said. “We hoped we could pick up an interception or two.”
Garner intercepted three passes, returning two for touchdowns. It also gave up five touchdown passes and 647 passing yards to Wakefield quarterback Connor Mitch.
“But we gave up only one touchdown in the second half,” Garner defensive coordinator Thurman Leach said. “We got better as the game went on.They have a great quarterback. We knew they were going to get some yards, but we wanted to give them some wrinkles.”
Morris said it was difficult to get a good read on West Brunswick, which Cleveland beat 40-33 in its playoff opener, but he and Hunt coach Randy Raper know a lot about each other.
This summer Cleveland, Hunt, Leesville and Garner gathered for 7-on-7 competitions.
“I may not be much of a coach, but if I invite you to come to a 7-on-7, it means you’re probably going to have a pretty good year,” Morris said.