The N&O preseason Top 25: The News & Observer begins a look at the area’s top 25 high school football teams Thursday with No. 25 Clayton. A team will be featured each day until Aug. 20 when the top-ranked teams will be announced in the first High School Huddle of the season. Most high school teams begin play on Aug. 23.
The late Glenn Nixon or the recently retired Gary Fowler led the Clayton High School football team for the last 54 years. Randy Pinkowski begins a new coaching era Thursday when N.C. High School Athletic Association teams begin official practice.
Nixon, a transplanted New Yorker who played at N.C. State, helped move Clayton from eight-man football to the more traditional 11-man game in 1959 and stayed another 26 years.
Fowler, who grew up in nearby Smithfield, was promoted from assistant coach to head coach in 1985 and held the position until he retired after last year’s 9-4 season.
Thirty of the 32 4A high school head football coaches in the Triangle have led their programs for four years or less.
Pinkowski, a Millbrook (N.Y.) High graduate, was an assistant coach at Clayton during the transition from Nixon to Fowler. Pinkowski left Clayton in 1996 to become the head coach at Pikeville Aycock.
His Aycock teams had a 75-83 record during his 14 years as head coach, including a 65-63 mark during his last 11 seasons and a 10-3 campaign in 2009.
Pinkowski knows the school’s tradition-rich football heritage that dates back to 1951, when then-Principal James O. Waters dismissed classes early and sent student volunteers to the nearby cotton fields. The money earned in the afternoon harvest bought the school’s first football uniforms. Clayton won the six-man state title in 1952.
The school really doesn’t revolve around football, but football is very visible. The school’s two main wings form an “L” around the stadium and many classrooms overlook the playing surface. The school’s cafeteria spills onto a patio at one end of the field. The goalposts at the other end are visible from Highway 70, the main corridor through town.
And for 54 years the football coaching vision has been constant.
“Protecting that reputation and heritage is one of my great responsibilities,” Pinkowski said. “I’m comfortable with the Xs and Os, but keeping that tradition intact scares me.
“There are years and years of tradition that goes with that Clayton jersey. I’ve told the guys that if they can’t embrace what it means to play for Clayton High School then they won’t. It is a privilege to play here. It is a privilege to coach here.”
Fowler said he is glad someone with Clayton ties got his old office.
“Randy has worn the blue and white,” Fowler said, referring to Pinkowski’s time on the staff. “He knows the Clayton tradition and how we have tried to do things in the past.”
Pinkowski started his career as an athletic trainer and knows all about the heat and humidity guidelines established by the NCHSAA. Practice time is limited and drinking water is available at all times as teams try to safely practice in the August heat.
All NCHSAA teams must have five days of conditioning before any contact is allowed. Teams are not allowed to scrimmage against other teams until the 10th day of practice.
The Comets graduated only a dozen seniors from last year’s club and have about 18 seniors this season.
The senior group has been the key to what Pinkowski thinks will be a smooth transition. He doesn’t plan wholesale changes as the team adjusts to his coaching.
He has a solid core to build around. Fullback Jace Brown had 1,000 rushing yards in 2012 and all-conference center Gabe Lewis is back.
One key, Pinkowski believes, is quarterback Sam May, who passed for 443 yards in an offense that averaged fewer than six passes per game.
“Traditionally, the Clayton quarterback has handed off and managed the offense,” Pinkowski said. “But I have a different philosophy. The quarterback needs to be productive. He will run the ball and he’ll produce yardage with his arm. We’re extremely fortunate that Sam is capable of doing those things.”
The Comets also are counting on junior wingback Eric Hoy, who has the potential to make big plays.
Pinkowski said he is excited about what he has seen defensively in off-season drills.
The linebacking corps of Raleigh Gilbert, Rashan McKey and Evan Bradshaw could be outstanding. The secondary includes cornerbacks Anton Watson and Hoy.
“Gary left me a great group of seniors,” Pinkowski said. “The seniors always have had the responsibility here of leading. I think we’ve got some good leaders.”