Northeast Cougars learn both football and life skills in 2018

Published 5:32 pm Tuesday, November 13, 2018

PINETOWN — The Northeast Cougars may not have accomplished their preseason goal of winning a conference championship, but with their only loss of the year coming at the hands of eventual champion Chocowinity Middle School, the extremely inexperienced Cougars can hold their heads up high with what they accomplished in the 2018 middle school football season.

With 10 of the 20 players on the team having never played football before, this season was always going to be an uphill climb. Complicating matters even more was the fact head coach John Woolard shifted to using the flexbone on offense, instead of his preferred power I, due to the lack of the proper personnel.

Woolard said his players were forced to grow up fast out of necessity.

“I’m very satisfied with our season, because they’ve come a long way. I mean, when we were putting on helmets this year, getting our equipment, a kid put the helmet on backwards and said, ‘Does this one work Coach?’” Woolard said with a laugh. “Realistically I think we over achieved. We played about as hard as we could play this year.”

Despite having a team filled with players who had never played before, Woolard had them ready to go for the first game of the year, which was pushed back to Sept. 26 due to Hurricane Florence. The Cougars opened the season with a 38-6 road win over Bath Elementary School and followed up with a 42-12 victory at home over St. Peter Catholic School.

The Cougars then posted its first shutout of the year with a 28-0 win at Columbia Middle School. Northeast then headed to Chocowinity to take on the Indians, in what was seen as the game that will decide the conference championship. The Indians proved to be too much for Cougars, as they were for every opponent they faced, as Northeast fell, 40-0. But Woolard’s squad bounced back to close out the season with a 32-0 win at home against Bath.

JUMP BALL: Northeast’s Elijah Holloway battles for a pass with a Chocowinity defensive back. While more of a wide receiver, Holloway played as a set back this past season in the flexbone the Cougars ran in 2018. (Sean Finnerty | Daily News)

With 10 players who never played before, Northeast’s experience was in the backfield. Quarterback/outside linebacker Briley Cooper, who Woolard described as “the real deal” and the driving force for his team, led the Cougars running the option in the flexbone.

“I guess you could say, ‘In Briley we trust,’” Woolard said. “He plays with heart and he knew every position in the backfield. I could put him wherever I needed to. He’s going to be a special quarterback over at Northside, I’m thinking.”

In the backfield with Cooper were Marcus Clayton at wingback and Elijah Holloway, who is a receiver but played as a set back out of necessity. The duo provided variety in the running game for the Cougars, as Clayton provided speed and Holloway supplied power.

But while the backfield was full of players with experience, all the linemen, save one, entered the year having never played a down of football. Woolard pointed to Kanyon Slade-Credle as a standout on the line, but he said his assistant coach, Mike Davis deserves all the plaudits for his work with the inexperienced players.

“My assistant coach, Mike Davis, he did a heck of a job for us this year with the line,” Woolard said. “Like I said, of the 20 players, 10 of them had never even played rec ball. He had the majority of them. He had to start from, ‘this is the football, we’ve got seven people on the line of scrimmage,’ teaching gaps and stuff. I would say the real hero would be our offensive line coach Mike Davis.”

But while there was a lot of teaching on how to play football this season, Woolard said coaching at the middle school level is also about teaching life skills.

“We’ve always had the slogan, ‘Learning to play, but playing to learn,’ like playing to learn future life goals,” Woolard said. “That’s something we’ve always talked to them about. Learning to play the game but you’re really playing the game to learn future life skills: setting goals and working hard towards your goals, reevaluating your goals and trying to reach the ones that are achievable.”