FAIRMONT — As football coaches from the Three Rivers Conference gathered at Fairmont High School on Thursday for the league’s annual media day, Mark Heil used the platform to send a message to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.
“We need to make a real push in football to shorten the season or get more time to get prepared before the first scrimmage,” Heil said. “And not just for the practices, but the additional paperwork.”
Heil, whose team was tabbed the early favorite to win the 1A/2A conference this season in a preseason coaches’ poll, added that more practice time would be a tremendous help in preparing kids for the regular season.
“I don’t think our kids are physically ready and I think we (coaches) all feel the exact same way,” he said. “All they (the NCHSAA) preach about is taking care of the kids, and making sure they’re ready to play. Then they turn around and only give you eight days (to practice), with all of this paperwork and things we have to do.
“In the old days, we’d have two-a-days for five or six days and other practices before we’d even scrimmage. We were much better prepared. We need 10 days. Two more extra days would make a huge difference, and that’s not a lot to ask.”
In addition to highlighting the importance of extra practice time and time for physicals, concussion tests and other paperwork, Heil also pointed to the possibility of shortening the season.
“I think we should cut a game off,” he said. “Sixteen games to win a state championship is an NFL schedule, so I just think it’s a good time to point this out that it should be recognized.”
The veteran coach enters the season coming off an 11-win year with the Golden Tornadoes, who were tri-champions of the conference along with South Columbus and Whiteville.
The team is led by a potent, high-scoring offense with quarterback Julius Caulder and receiver Jarique Moore pacing the attack.
“It’s always going to be a competitive conference,” Heil said. “But I think they (the kids) understand me and the importance of making football important in their lives. That’s what we didn’t have when we started. The kids really care about football now. It’s a work in progress. We’re excited, hopefully we’ll be competitive.”
Whiteville was picked to finish second in the preseason poll, followed by Red Springs, South Columbus, St. Pauls, South Robeson and East Columbus.
Bulldogs coach Ernest King is one of four first-year coaches in the conference. Maurice Huey, a former assistant coach at St. Pauls, begins his first season with the Gators, Russell Dove takes over at South Columbus and James Pierce is the head man at West Columbus.
King takes over a program that finished 3-8 last season, with all three wins coming in conference play.
“I’ve realized it’s a little different down here in Robeson County,” King said with a smile. “I was fortunate to get my offensive coordinator and my strength team to come in with me so it made it a lot easier to make the transition (from E.E. Smith).”
A slew of returners on both sides of the ball, including all-conference performer Elijah White, has King excited about the fresh start.
“The biggest thing is getting the kids to buy into the system,” he said, “believing in what they’re doing and letting the chips fall where they may.”
Red Springs coach Ron Cook is looking for more consistency from his squad this season. The Red Devils started the year with an 6-0 mark, before limping to the finish at 8-4.
Cook emphasized the importance of his defensive line, led by all-conference performer Jerome Bass, and special teams.
“It’s the strongest part of our defense,” he said. “They’re all pretty strong up front. … We’ve also focused a lot more on fundamentals with special teams this season. We really look forward to doing some good things there also.”
For South Robeson coach Clay Jernigan, whose team finished with an 2-10 record last season, the benefit of a full coaching staff has him feeling better about the state of his program entering the new year, as well as moving Darrius Brown from running back to under center.
“They take a lot off of my shoulders,” Jernigan said. “I think we’ll be in a little better shape this year. Our jayvee team won the conference last year so we have some guys coming up at some skill positions.
“We’ve really stressed worrying about ourselves this year.”
Rodd Baxley can be reached at 910-416-5182. Follow him on Twitter @RoddBaxley.