Lee County football coach Burton Cates believes high school coaches don’t know until late in the season whether a team has a realistic chance of making a deep playoff run and contending for a state championship.
Cates coached Eastern Randolph to four N.C. High School Athletic Association finals. His Yellow Jackets are 5-0, but he said no one knows how good a team is until until late October or early November.
Expectations are high in the Triangle this season, and the area has produced six NCHSAA finalists during the past four years. The Triangle might never have had as many schools as it has this year that seem to be state finals contenders.
But, Cates notes, the key to winning playoff games is improvement. Any team with title aspirations has to get better — a lot better — during the season.
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“One of the biggest keys is peaking at the right time,” he said. “You want to be playing your best football near the end of the season and you want to continue getting better. You want your best game of the season to be your last one.
“You really don’t know how good a team can be until it has played a while. Sometimes teams surprise you. Something good happens and it starts to steamroll.”
Wake Forest got hot at the right time last year. The Cougars were 3-3 in the Cap 8 4A on Nov. 1 after losing 14-10 to Sanderson. Coach Reggie Lucas knew he had a good team throughout much of last year, but he also knew it was a team that could take little for granted.
The Cougars were good enough to be competitive with any team on their schedule, but there wasn’t much wiggle room. It was not the type of team that could overwhelm the better teams in the Cap Eight 4A. Wake Forest advanced to the playoffs as the No. 4 qualifier from the league.
But once in the playoffs, the Cougars cut down on mistakes, handled adversity and continued to improve. In the playoffs, Wake Forest beat Panther Creek 35-14, Southern Pines Pinecrest 17-10, Millbrook 27-24 in four overtimes and Middle Creek 24-23.
The Cougars reached the final before falling to Charlotte Mallard Creek 59-21.
Execution is key
“The key for us all year was limiting our mistakes,” Lucas said. “We cut down on our mistakes in the playoffs until we got to the finals. Then we made way too many mistakes. We didn’t play our best.
“What you have to remember is that you are playing one of the best teams in the state. If you don’t play your best, if you have turnovers and penalties, you are going to get beat.”
Lucas said a coach can make a game plan to exploit any weakness on another team, even a championship-caliber team. But in most games, and almost always in a state final, the winner is determined by execution.
“When I look back on our game plans in the state championships, I think we had a solid game plan both times,” he said. “But we didn’t execute for whatever reason. And in the state finals you are playing a great team that is going to take advantage of any mistake.”
Only a handful of current area head coaches were the head coaches of state championship teams – Durham Hillside’s Antonio King (4A in 2010), Lee County’s Cates (3A Eastern Randolph in 2006), Orange’s Pat Moser (2A Graham in 2000) and Enloe’s Steve Johnson (2A Burlington Cummings in 2002 and 2006).
Wake Forest overcame adversity during its march to the final.
Standout runner Bryce Love was injured during the playoffs and was not a factor in the semifinal or final.
“You are going to have adversity,” Cates said. “The key is for the kids to overcome it. Every team that I coached that made it to the finals had a kid step up that I never expected to play a big role. If you’re going far in the playoffs, you’ve got to have that kid.”
Orange’s Moser, whose club is a state title contender in the 3A ranks, said coaches can tell if they have good talent early in the year, but they have to wait to see what kind of leadership emerges. Sometimes it is easier to handle adversity than it is success.
“If you get kids who are worried about their carries or the number of passes that are being thrown to them, it can really hurt a team,” Moser said. “You don’t really know how that is going to work out.
“Last year, we had a great bunch of seniors and they took care of a lot of that. It didn’t flow upstream to me. It was a great year – one of the best years that I have ever had in coaching – because the kids set aside their own goals for our team goals.”
Support played a role in Hillside’s run to the title in 2010, King said.
“We had a community that we were playing for,” King said. “That was bigger than us just playing for ourselves.”
Johnson had a powerhouse at Cummings. He said handling tough times is a trait of great teams.
“A team has to have a certain edge, a belief that they will find a way to win during adversity,” Johnson said. “And a championship team is willing to put its money where its mouth is, meaning they are willing to spend extra time to get prepared on their own.”
One of the biggest keys, Johnson said, is for the players to grasp the big picture.
“They have to be willing to look past their egos for the better good of the team,” he said.
Cates said no team will play any longer than the players are willing to practice. Once the players are tired of going to practice, they probably will lose.
And the state champion usually has to get a little luck along the way.
“The matchups are important,” Johnson said. “You might match up with one team better than another.”
Sometimes the winner is determined by which way the ball bounces. Does a fumble bounce back up into the ball carrier’s arms or carom yards away?
“You’ve got to have a little luck somewhere in the playoffs,” Cates said. “But you also have to be ready to take advantage of it if you get a break.”