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Progress has been a recurring theme for the Smithfield-Selma football program this summer.
Looking ahead to the hope of greener pastures in 2019, the Spartans last had a winning season 11 years and four head coaches ago. In the time since, the team has lost every game in four seasons, while boasting just two multi-win years for all of its hard work on the gridiron.
But head coach Michael Parrish predicted that his team is ready to take another step in the right direction this season after seeing slight improvements since he took over.
“We’re better than we have been in the past. This is my third year, so I’m hoping to see the turn finally,” Parrish said July 11 after a 7-on-7 matchup with New Bern High. “We broke the losing streak my first year, won homecoming again last year. We had a lot of games that were closer last year, just numbers-wise it was a hard thing. Now that they’re in better shape, stronger, more physical, I think we will be able to see some damage, hopefully.”
As Parrish noted, the progress has been coming along — albeit slowly. Two seasons ago, the team broke through what had been an 0-29 dry spell that extended across four seasons. Last season, the team won its first conference game since 2014 and captured its first-ever win in the 3-A Greater Neuse River Conference since joining in 2017.
“It’s been a long time coming, but, yeah, I’m finally starting to see the work and all my coaches and everything we’ve been working finally start to pay off,” Parrish said.
Parrish said the difference this year has been the strength of his players. In recent years, the SSS program hasn’t matched up with other schools in that aspect of the game. But after “not sacrificing time in the weight room” this summer — spending as much time lifting each day as on offensive and defensive drills — he said the team will be putting itself in better position to keep up.
The players, too, feel good about how preparation will be setting them up.
“I’m seeing that we’re making a lot of progress from last year and this year,” sophomore running back Brandon Perry said. “We’re looking very good on the line — O-line and D-line. I’m seeing that we’re going to have a great season this year.”
Perry stressed that the offensive line has been an Achilles’ heel for the program in the past. The Spartans’ option allows some room to work around problem defensive linemen who can bust up plays, but chiefly relies on the angles from those initial blocks that let the play develop.
“For us to read our holes and stuff, they’re the ones that open it up for us,” Perry said.
Sophomore quarterback Clevonte Watson also expected the blocking up front to be strong, leaving room for him and Perry to make the split-second reads crucial to an offense that thrives on misdirection.
“The line is way better than last year,” Watson said. “We’ve got more potential than last year. We have more pump. We know we’re going to be something this year.”
Watson, who played junior varsity last season, said he didn’t envision ever playing quarterback, and only starting playing the position when he got to high school.
“I really wasn’t a football person, but everybody said I had a body, so I tried it out and turned out I was pretty good,” Watson said. “But I never throught I was going to be a quarterback.”
With only four seniors expected to play in 2019, Parrish said he will “rely heavily” upon underclassmen to lead the way, with Watson and Perry being out in front of that group. Particularly on the offensive end, those two young players in the backfield will be as important as anyone.
Both ball carriers said with three full seasons left, they’re motivated by bad seasons in the rearview mirror. They look to bring home more victories than any Spartan football team has in recent years to reach some of their goals.
By their senior seasons, both players said they not only want to be making the playoffs, they want to be competing for a state championship. That sentiment closely aligns with what Parrish hopes to accomplish, to “bring football back to the community and make it relevant again.”
But before that can happen, the program will keep its eyes focused upon the progress that comes yard by yard and day by day before the pads even come on.
“As you see, we’re making a lot of progress,” Perry said. “So I really think we’re going to be nice.”