RALEIGH — Leesville Road started the season on a tear but hit a speed bump in its fourth game, losing several players to injury, including standout Braxton Berrios.
The weeks since have been a time of adjustment and learning, and a test of how the team would handle adversity. It’s not the way coach Chad Smothers envisioned the season going, but he’s hoping the obstacles can make the Pride stronger in the long run.
With three games remaining in the regular season, Leesville Road (6-2, 3-1 Cap Eight) sits knotted in a four-way tie for first place in the conference with Millbrook, Wakefield and Wake Forest.
Leesville Road closes Cap Eight play by facing each team, starting with a home game against Wake Forest on Friday.
“We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves because nobody else is going to, so we better step up and face the adversity head on,” Smothers said. “Injuries happen to everybody, especially in football. It doesn’t discriminate. Every team is going to get injuries somewhere down the line, so that’s kind of the attitude we’ve had. We’re just trying to work ourselves through it. As we get them back, we’re going to get better and better each week.”
Leesville Road, which went undefeated in the Cap Eight the past two seasons, entered the season ranked No. 2 in the area.
The Pride rolled through its first three games, outscoring opponents 141-30.
In its fourth game, then-No. 1 Leesville Road led visiting Panther Creek by a modest 18-7 nearing halftime when Berrios went down with a foot injury.
The loss of the four-star Miami recruit was a big one for the Pride, but Berrios wasn’t the only Leesville Road player knocked out in that game.
Defensive lineman Daniel Gleiberman sustained a concussion, which sidelined the junior for two weeks. Juniors Elijah Richardson and Malik Parker, who play receiver and cornerback, were also injured – Richardson with a torn ligament in his elbow and Parker with a sprained shoulder.
“We lost four right there, and a couple of them played both ways, so we lost about five starters in that one game,” Smothers said, adding that Robert Owens, a starting cornerback, is out for the year after suffering a torn labrum in his right shoulder during the team’s open date. “Then we’ve had a couple little bitty (injuries) here and there, but we’re slowly starting to gain some of them back.”
After Leesville Road lost to Panther Creek and the following week at Heritage, it made a key adjustment, moving senior running back Malcolm Hitchcock to quarterback, using him in ways similar to the schemes used around Berrios.
Hitchcock, making his first varsity start at quarterback, rushed for four touchdowns and threw for another to lead the Pride to a 42-14 win over Broughton.
“We had a talk with him Monday after the Heritage game,” Smothers said of Hitchcock. “I basically said ‘we’re going to put it on your shoulders. ... You’re a leader, you’re a captain, and we’re going to put it on you and the other seniors to get us through this rough patch until we get some people back.’ He’s been phenomenal for what he’s been able to do for us.”
Berrios said while it’s hard not being able to play, he trusts his teammates, and sees the improvements the team has made in his absence.
“I have complete faith in my teammates,” he said. “They’re getting better and better each week, so once I can get back, we’ll be even better than before.”
As of Thursday, Smothers said he did not expect Berrios to play in Friday’s matchup against Wake Forest. Defensive back Connor Eller is also out after being injured during practice this week.
“The lessons we’ve learned, the adversity we’ve faced and how we’ve responded to it has definitely made us a better football team, and a tougher football team because we’ve had to dig in and fight,” he said. “Through the first half of the Panther Creek game, we had come out rolling and gotten ahead of some people, and quite frankly we hadn’t faced a lot of adversity. ... I think we’re mentally tougher because of what we’ve gone through and it should make us better in the end.”