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WENDELL — Residents of northeastern Johnston County can count on two things this summer — temperatures will remain hot and the Corinth Holders High football team will be young in 2019.
With 14 seniors who will be sprinkled at positions across the field, the Pirates’ success this season, in all likelihood, will depend upon underclassmen taking on big roles in the move from junior varsity to varsity. Summer preparation has been dominated so far with getting those players ready for Friday nights.
“The biggest thing has been getting a lot of our younger guys going, getting them on the same page with what we’re trying to do,” head coach Adam Khavari said. “Teaching them how we do things in the weight room, teaching them how we do things on the field. Like I said, with our young guys, tweaking a few things here and there.”
While both sides of the ball will boast youth, Khavari is counting on the defense to lead the way with more experience while the offense gets up to speed.
“Offensively, we have a lot of youth there,” Khavari said. “We’re trying to make sure our defense is strong so that we don’t make it easy on other teams until our offense can find its rhythm. We’ve had a lot of change up front with our offensive line, and we’ve got a lot of backs coming back, but trying to get that jell and that rhythm with the offensive line is always crucial to the success of our offense.”
Center Jeffrey Palmer will lead the offensive line as the lone senior blocking up front in his first year at the position after moving over from guard.
After the 2018 season, the Pirates had several key departures at the position including Jacob Monk, a dominant player who will be a freshman at Duke University. With those losses, Palmer will be surrounded by less-experienced sophomores and some juniors on the line.
Despite youth, Palmer said he expects work this summer to get the position ready for the gridiron.
“It’s been next man up,” Palmer explained. “And these young guys have really stepped into the program.”
The offensive line can be a highly scrutinized unit, Palmer said, because nothing can work on the offensive end without those initial blocks. This makes the progress of the position group crucial to the season.
“When you’re doing really good people are like, ‘Man, the offensive line is awesome,’ Palmer said. “But man, when you’re struggling, you’re catching the opposite. It’s like, ‘Oh, the O-line sucks, or you’ve got to block.’”
Like Palmer at center, the reality of the program is that veteran players will be tasked with leading the less experienced. Not just on the offensive line, but across the board. Many of the players who are among the oldest on the team now, were once in similar circumstances to the players now — moving up to varsity as sophomores or freshmen and stepping into starting roles.
This has made many of those players headed into the final season of their high school careers conscious of their own role in building the future of Pirate football.
“I just try to show them everything that I learned growing up, coming into each grade,” senior cornerback Marcus Bland Jr. said. “Since I started as a sophomore, I just tried to learn from people who were seniors already. And since I was on varsity, I was already getting certain little skills and I was passing it down.”
Senior nose tackle Cooper Carlson said he pushes younger players who are apprehensive about getting reps to learn as much as they can, even if they’re smaller than the guys they practice against.
“I see potential in some of them,” Carlson said. “I’d say by the time most of them are sophomores, they’ll be doing great. They just need to get in practice more.”
Aug. 1, the first official day of practice, is quickly approaching, making the grunt work of summer workouts all the more important for the program. But older players push back against the notion experience has anything to do with how good the team will be.
“I know it’s going to help for years to come, and I feel like they’re young,” Bland Jr. said. “But we’re still going to be able to compete and show everybody who we are as Corinth Holders and make a name for ourselves.”
Senior linebacker Jordan White doesn’t want others to have the same experience he did as a young player. That is pushing him to avoid some of the same mistakes players made when he first joined the program.
“Something they have that we didn’t as underclassmen was leadership and attitude. When we were freshmen, everybody’s attitude was garbage,” White said. “There were fights all the time and everybody hated each other. Now, everybody is a lot close and the attitude is way better.”
Like many of his fellow seniors, White is the only fourth-year player starting at linebacker. Since joining the program, he has endured a trio of three-win seasons and doesn’t want the progress of the program to fall victim to those same downfalls.
“I’m just trying to help change the attitudes in our program, and work on finishing practices and games because that’s what we haven’t done in the past,” White said.
Senior safety Langston Robinson sees that the key to more wins can come through younger players working alongside older guys. That means winning doesn’t have to just come later; it can come this season too.
“They’re young, but they’re gradually catching on to how we’re doing things here,” Robinson said. “So I feel like we’re doing pretty good with them.”
Even with a young team still learning, the Pirates won’t have it easy in the 4-A Northern Athletic Conference play. In the second half of the season, Corinth Holders will likely see its toughest competition of the year in a slate of games against area foes.
“I think we play in the toughest league in the state,” Khavari said. “I’ve said that to anybody that I’ve talked to. I think from top to bottom, we have the toughest league in the state. Every team is very, very good, they’re very well-coached, their kids play hard. So, it’s a bear. We know what’s on the table every week.”
Last year, the Pirates were winless in the conference (0-5), losing by no fewer than two touchdowns during the final stretch of the season. That losing streak was capped off by a 70-7 loss to Wake Forest High, which has won all three of the last North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4-AA championships and looks to reach its seventh state championship appearance since 2010 this season.
Last season, Rolesville, Heritage and Wakefield all emerged through conference play with (3-2) winning records, while Knightdale finished just ahead of the Pirates at 1-4.
A strong conference schedule poses a challenge for Corinth Holders looking ahead. Senior fullback Lucas Crickmore said those tough teams are driving the team this summer.
“The harder we work, the better we give it to them,” Crickmore said. “Any team can be beaten at any point, so I think if we work hard, we can beat them.”