As he encourages his players through a series of challenging, practice-ending sprints, West Johnston football coach Jimmy Williams is quick to remind them that the back-door option toward the upper echelon of the Greater Neuse River Conference standings won’t be available this fall.
“Gentlemen, we are not under the radar screen anymore!” Williams shouts. “People know about us now!”
That reputation transformation occurred midway through the 2015 campaign after the Wildcats had dropped four straight contests and appeared destined for a middle-of-the-road showing in the GNRC.
But close victories over Southeast Raleigh and East Wake boosted West Johnston’s confidence level and pushed them to a 5-2 finish in the conference and a 7-6 record overall.
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The Wildcats won five of their final six regular-season games and then beat Cardinal Gibbons in the opening round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4A state playoffs.
Making its first appearance in the second round in school history, West Johnston saw its campaign come to a close with a 24-17 loss at New Hanover, though the Wildcats led the game in the fourth quarter.
“We just stayed the course,” said Williams, who is entering his fourth year as West Johnson and 20th overall after a long tenure at East Wake. “When you are building a program, it can be a slow process. It took us awhile to get where we wanted, especially considering we have 3A (enrollment) numbers, but are competing in one of the best 4A conferences in the state. When we were struggling, I think that experience really helped bring us together.”
But while Williams was thrilled at his club’s progress in 2015, the loss at New Hanover provided a hefty dose of offseason incentive for what will be a veteran group loaded with senior returnees. West Johnston’s motto of “Unfinished Business” is posted throughout the school’s new fieldhouse facility.
“What happened last year was a big springboard for us,” Williams said. “We got to the 7-yard line at the end of the New Hanover game and couldn’t score but it showed our guys that we can play at that level. We just have to continue to do what we have been doing but that was last year, and there are no guarantees in sports.’’
One certain guarantee is that nobody in the GNRC will be overlooking the Wildcats this time around. Not after West Johnston nearly ran the table after opening its league schedule last season with a 30-point loss to Rolesville.
After that disappointment, the Wildcats would fall only to Garner the rest of the way. They had convincing wins over Clayton and Harnett Central.
Who are some players to watch?
Senior tailback Tony Mack rushed for over 1,400 yards last season despite being hampered in the playoffs with an injury. Mack is also a standout baseball player for the Wildcats and could potentially try to play both at the college level.
“Tony is a great athlete,” Williams said. “I think he is looking for a situation where he can play both football and baseball.”
Also returning for West Johnston is quarterback Andre Wilson, who teams with Mack to form one of the GNRC’s best backfields.
Connor Denning, a three-year starter, and Buck Williams anchor the offensive line.
The Wildcats are also experienced at linebacker led by two-year starter Josh Long and three-year starter Quinton Brown. Joey Lama, who will spell Mack at tailback, is another linebacker standout.
Gordon Curry is back at safety and will lead at secondary that also features two-year starter Timare Robinson.
Which players will they miss the most?
Deandre Blevins recently showcased his skills as a defensive back and return specialist at the North Carolina Coaches Association East-West All-Star Game. Blevins has signed a letter-of-intent to continue his career at Winston-Salem State University.
Slot receiver Jake Strickland was a reliable target, and Jowann Holder and Jalen Pully were tough along the defensive front
Can the Wildcats make their final season in the GNRC a memorable one?
After this year, West Johnston will drop down to the 3A level after a long stint in the 4A Greater Neuse.
Williams is bittersweet about the shift, as he has cherished his time in the GNRC but feels 3A football is better suited toward West Johnston’s current enrollment. Williams is upbeat about his chances to make one last mark in the conference this fall.
“We have a lot of experience back,” Williams said. “We were third in the conference two years ago and second last year. If we are going to do it, this is the time.”
More on the Wildcats
Last Year: 7-6 (5-2 Greater Neuse 4A), 4A second round
Five-year average: 6-6 (4-3)
Defense: 3-3-5 and 3-4
Preseason N&O rank: No. 20
Coaches: Jimmy Williams (head coach), Sam Hales (Off. coordinator), Brian Roach (Def. coordinator), Josh Plisko (RBs), Tyler Dean (TEs/OL), Tony Settimi (LBs/WRs), Elerod Morris (DL), Jeremy Stephenson (RBs), Darrick Muldrow (DL)
Contributors: Gordon Curry (Sr,. DB), Connor Denning (Sr., C), Buck Williams (Sr., OL), Tony Mack (Sr., TB), Andre Wilson (Sr., QB), Timare Robinson (Sr., WR/CB), Quinton Brown (Sr., LB), Zach Lassiter (Sr., DE), Victor Mitchell (Sr., DE), Joey Lama (Sr., TB/LB), Jimmy Sidney (Sr., TE), Josh Long (Sr., LB)
The main number: 25 — West Johnston’s senior class features 25 players. That group should provide the Wildcats will plenty of skill, experience and leadership.
Aug. 19 vs. Smithfield-Selma, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 26 at South Johnston, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 OPEN
Sept. 9 at Cleveland, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 16* at Rolesville, 7 p.m.
Sept. 23* vs. Southeast Raleigh, 7 p.m.
Sept. 30* at East Wake, 7 p.m.
Oct. 7* vs. Harnett Central, 7 p.m.
Oct. 14 vs. Apex Friendship, 7 p.m.
Oct. 21* at Clayton, 7 p.m.
Oct. 28* vs. Garner, 7 p.m.
Nov. 4* at Knightdale, 7 p.m.