Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
PRINCETON — Princeton’s football team had a historic season, but it didn’t start on the field, it started in New York.
A mission trip to feed the hungry in the summer let head coach Travis Gaster know that all of his players were dedicated.
“There was nothing they could be made to do for football over that week because it was a dead period, but instead of going to the beach with their friends, they chose to serve homeless people,” Gaster said. “Every one of them went, and that let me know that every one of them was all in.”
Gaster feels like that trip sparked a bonding process leading to the first outright conference title in 37 years as well as the first undefeated regular season in school history. The Bulldogs earned a bye and the No. 2 seed in the NCHSAA 1AA state playoffs. Princeton would lose in the second round to Riverside, 56-46.
For that, Gaster won the Carolina Panthers’ Coach of the Week honor and has been named the Johnstonian News’ All-County Coach of the Year.
The fourth-year head coach hasn’t always had the accolades or support. In fact, when Gaster started, he had to deal with expectations as the Bulldogs were coming off two of the most successful years in school history. But with a lot of the talent from those teams gone, Gaster went 4-7.
“There was definitely doubt,” Gaster said. “There was that, and there was also people who could see what we were trying to do and could see past the immediate. But that was to be expected.”
Gaster has been around football his entire life. It started with his father, Jack, who coached at Smithfield-Selma from 1980-89. In 1989, his dad got hired to coach in Lexington until 1991 when he went to Albemarle. Gaster played football for his dad, then went to play at the Air Force Academy before transferring to N.C. State to finish his degree.
It was at State that Gaster started his coaching career as a graduate assistant. Gaster then made stops at East Wake and Harnett Central before coming back to Johnston County to help open Cleveland. Gaster would leave for Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, after four years.
But the transient nature of Myrtle Beach didn’t appeal to him and his wife. They decided to move back to a smaller town to raise their children. Two weeks later, the Princeton job became available.
“The draw here is the family-oriented, small-town atmosphere,” Gaster said. “That’s what we wanted to raise our children in, and it has provided every bit of what we had hoped for.”
Gaster used the family atmosphere to build his program. Him and his coaching staff of Scotty Pearce, Trevor Pilkington, Chris Phillips, Chris Sauls and Justin Willoughby have made sure to emphasize family.
“That’s our motto instead of ‘Win, Bulldogs,’ or anything like that, we say ‘Family’ every time we leave each other,” Gaster said. “To me, that’s what it’s got to be. Family is a great representation of a team. Family’s not easy.”
Gaster also preaches precision. He doesn’t say one game, one practice, or one day at a time, he says one step at a time. That may be why this group was the one to break through. This is the first group of seniors Gaster had as freshmen, and since he came in he has made sure every player knows his role. Part of that was switching from the spread — an individualistic offense — to a single wing, gun wing-T hybrid that emphasizes all 11 players working together to move the ball.
“He didn’t look at any player as his special player, he brought in everyone and made everyone know they’re important to the team and what we do together as a family,” senior blocking back Garrett Klein said.
Gaster felt changing the offense to something that involved the whole team and was built on each player hitting the weight room and doing their job would be more sustainable. Gaster said he looks at the seniors’ photos from when they were on JV and he laughs because they were “some scrawny young ‘uns.”
As young men during the season, they didn’t know the history they were making.
“We were just so happy that all the work we put in four years — worked,” senior linebacker Nathan Ramby said. “We’re not the most athletic group or anything like that, but we come together and make each other.”
The players say Gaster is responsible for Princeton being where it is, and where it can go next year with hard work and dedication.
“His No. 1 motto is he’s not trying to make us a better football player, he’s trying to make us a better man in life, and I think he’s really instilled that in everybody, especially me,” Ramby said. “He’s been a father figure to me more than anyone else. Gaster is a real good guy.”
“If we stay on the underclassmen and keep them working in the weight room, they should have a special season next year,” Klein added.