Ben Kolstad knows what quality football in the Triangle looks like when he sees it. He took Cary football to new heights years ago, and did the same at Sanderson High before resigning from there at the end of last season.
He didn’t stay off the sidelines long, taking over as head coach at Leesville Road last month. At the time, Kolstad hadn’t held his first team meeting yet, so he didn’t know exactly who he had on his roster.
But after a month of summer workouts and 7-on-7 sessions, Kolstad almost gushes when he talks about his 2019 football team.
“It’s probably the most talented group I’ve ever coached,” Kolstad told The News & Observer via phone on Monday. “There’s not a whole lot of weaknesses. We’ve got more depth than I’ve ever had at any other places I’ve been at. It’s going to come down to can we come together and play as a team?”
In 2018 Leesville went 10-3, and the three loses were nothing to be ashamed of. They lost twice to three-time 4AA champion Wake Forest and once at home to eventual Cap-7 champion Cardinal Gibbons.
With the bulk of the key players from that 10-3 team returning, many expect the Pride to be one of the top teams in the Triangle this season and a serious contender to challenge the Crusaders for that Cap-7 title.
When Kolstad was asked about his offense, the word “talented” kept popping up.
“Talented, talented group, really solid.”
That group will be anchored by Clemson commit Mitchell Mayes (6-5, 304 pounds), center Xavier McCreary (6-1, 270) and tackle Andrew Canelas (6-8, 300), the No. 22 player in the state according to 247Sports.
The backfield is deep, as well as the defensive line. Kolstad has so much depth he only has to use two two-way players: senior running back and defensive back David Sohn (6-0, 195) and senior wide receiver/cornerback/kicker Noah Burnette (5-10, 155).
Last season, Sohn rushed for 1,018 yards and 25 touchdowns, while collecting 67 tackles on defense. Burnette was one of the top receivers in the state, catching 70 passes for 1,353 yards and 12 scores. He also had 25 tackles as a corner, but his ticket to the playing college football might be his leg. Burnette connected on 34 of 35 PATs and was 10-15 on field goals with a long of 52 yards.
Burnette has been dealing with an injury this summer that has kept him out of team activities. Kolstad expects him back when the team returns to workouts after the dead period this week.
Sohn’s talents mean he’ll be played both sides of the field.
“David will play both,” Kolstad said about Sohn. “He’s just a good football player, just understands the game on both sides.”
The position battles so far have only made the Pride better. One position Kolstad will watch is quarterback. Vince Amendola graduated and accepted a preferred walk-on spot at UNC. That leaves the starting position open to one of three players: Sanderson transfer Trey Baker (6-1, 165), junior Ethan Burchfield (6-2, 165) and sophomore Dominic Williams (6-2, 180).
Baker threw for 2,158 yards and 20 touchdowns and five interceptions last season for the Spartans. He might be the front runner since he played for Kolstad at Sanderson and knows the coach’s system. But Kolstad insists the quarterback race is wide open between the three as the season opener approaches.
Kolstad said it’s been “refreshing” to see the position battles, which will only intensify as the season starts. The Pride, building on last year’s 10-win season, knows the expectations are high, and the pressure is there to expand on the 10-wins. Confidence, however, hasn’t been an issue with this experienced bunch.
“They are very competitive, they are very confident,” Kolstad said. “This is a special senior group. These kids played when they were young, so they have that varsity experience. They want to do more, they want to take it to that next level. If we can stay healthy and work and get better, we have an opportunity to work for a conference championship.”
Kolstad said his job each week will be to challenge the kids to get better, and not look ahead to Sept. 27, when the team takes on Cardinal Gibbons for the conference opener. Kolstad likes to use the fish bowl analogy when talking about his team.
“We want to be better than just a fish in a small bowl,” Kolstad said. “We want to know that there is a whole lot out there and we have to keep working to get better.”