A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Or in the case of East Chapel Hill, one win.
The Wildcats won exactly one game in 2015, and that meant a lot. Ascendent for three years and reaching the state playoffs with charismatic head coach Bill Renner, East Chapel Hill nose-dived the next two seasons after his departure, going 3-8 and then hitting bottom with an 0-11 finish in 2014.
So last year’s 30-27 win against district rival Carrboro was a big one. It was enough to get between 20 and 25 would-be Wildcats to show up consistently for summer workouts. Those are meaningful numbers for a program that dipped below 15 healthy players in 2014, forcing three forfeits near the season’s end.
“That core group of guys have been working hard,” second-year head coach Ryan Johnson said. “What we need is to work on getting those numbers up.”
Who’s missing from last year?
All-conference middle linebacker Koby Andrade graduated, and, as Johnson said, “it’s hard to replace 120 tackles on defense. He’s the type of guy you wish you had 20 of for your program.”
Also, rising junior Amier Alston, who had 231 yards and 4 touchdowns in last year’s win against Carrboro and made the all-PAC-6 team, has transferred back to Eastern Alamance.
So where’s the good news?
“We will be stronger this season on both sides of the ball,” Johnson said. “We return a lot of players with a lot of game experience.”
Quarterback Brater Gerber returns for his senior season with a better working knowledge of East’s Flexbone offense.
In 2015, Brater truly took the role of a leader for our team,” Johnson said. “He improved in managing the game on offense and playing within his coaching and not trying to do more than what was asked of him. He had a great summer.”
Quarterback is one of the few positions East has some depth, and both junior Josiah Barkley and senior Derek Mahone could see some playing time at QB as the Wildcats try to rotate some players on and off the field.
East Chapel Hill also gets back Will Schmidt, who received all-conference honorable mention at placekicker and who can play at receiver, too.
What does the Flexbone do for East?
The Flexbone is a system designed to run a triple option while retaining four potential vertical threats at receiver and wing/slotback. Even without Alston, whose personal motto has been “Football is life,” East has plenty of quick players who can play either at back or receiver.
The offense also is uncommon enough that it usually allows opponents little time to prepare for its different formations and options.
“Year two in the same systems on both offense and defense will pay dividends this season,” Johnson said.
The other side of that double-edged sword is that the offense is tricky, requiring quick decisions under pressure, and can lead to turnovers.
“Attention to detail” is at the top of Johnson’s checklist this season, along with “being consistent in taking advantage of opportunities, raising the scoring percentage in the red zone, and capitalizing on turnovers and good field position.”
More on the Wildcats
Last season: 1-10 (0-5 PAC-6)
Five year average (conference): 2-9, (2-4)
Preseason N&O rank: Unranked
Coaches: Ryan Johnson (Head coach, 2nd year/Def. coordinator); Lamont Robinson (Off. coordinator/QBs/RBs); Stephen Davis (OL/DL); Kyree Garrett (DBs, Slotbacks); Chris Gibson (special teams); Adam Watkins (LBs/WRs).
Contributors: Brater Gerber (Sr., QB); M.T. Turner (Sr., OL/DL); Derek Mahone (Sr., DB/RB); Will Schmidt (Sr., DB/WR/PK); Germaine Brown (Sr., DB/SB).
The main number: 2012 – last year East made the playoffs.
Aug. 19 vs. Northern Vance, 7 p.m..
Aug. 26 vs. Carrboro 7:30 p.m.
Sep. 2 at Cedar Ridge, 7 p.m.
Sep. 9 vs. Bartlett Yancey, 7 p.m.
Sep. 16# at Chapel Hill, 7 p.m.
Sep. 23* vs. Hillside , 7 p.m.
Sep. 30 at Jordan
Oct. 7* vs. Person, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 BYE
Oct. 21* at Northern Durham, 7 p.m.
Oct. 28* vs. Cardinal Gibbons, 7 p.m.
Nov. 4* at Riverside, 7 p.m.
Note: *Conference game; #N&O Hodgin Cup