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SOUTHERN NASH SEASON PREVIEW

Firebirds look to climb mountain again

Posted on February 26, 2021

SportsSchool Sports
Southern Nash defensive end Terrence Raspberry (44) fights off a Charlotte Catholic blocker during the 2019 NCHSAA 3-A championship game at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. Raspberry is one of just six returning Firebirds starters on both sides of the ball.

Sheldon Vick | Special to The Enterprise

Southern Nash defensive end Terrence Raspberry (44) fights off a Charlotte Catholic blocker during the 2019 NCHSAA 3-A championship game at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. Raspberry is one of just six returning Firebirds starters on both sides of the ball.

Jackson Vick, running the ball for Southern Nash during a September 2019 game at South Granville, is the Firebirds' top returning rusher this season.

Bunnie Hagler | Special to The Enterprise

Jackson Vick, running the ball for Southern Nash during a September 2019 game at South Granville, is the Firebirds' top returning rusher this season.

Southern Nash defensive end Terrence Raspberry (44) fights off a Charlotte Catholic blocker during the 2019 NCHSAA 3-A championship game at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. Raspberry is one of just six returning Firebirds starters on both sides of the ball.

Sheldon Vick | Special to The Enterprise

Southern Nash defensive end Terrence Raspberry (44) fights off a Charlotte Catholic blocker during the 2019 NCHSAA 3-A championship game at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. Raspberry is one of just six returning Firebirds starters on both sides of the ball.

Jackson Vick, running the ball for Southern Nash during a September 2019 game at South Granville, is the Firebirds' top returning rusher this season.

Bunnie Hagler | Special to The Enterprise

Jackson Vick, running the ball for Southern Nash during a September 2019 game at South Granville, is the Firebirds' top returning rusher this season.

Firebirds’ 2021 schedule

Date         Opponent

Feb. 26    at Wakefield

March 5   at Wake Forest Heritage

March 12   Fike*

March 19   at Northern Nash

March 26   Hunt*

April 2       Rocky Mount*

April 9       at Franklinton*

* 3-A Big East Conference game

paul@wilsontimes.com | 252-265-7808

The last time Southern Nash players walked off a field after a game, it wasn’t just any game or any field. The Firebirds ended the 2019 season with their first loss, a 23-7 outcome against Charlotte Catholic in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A championship game, played at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.

It was Southern Nash’s first appearance in a state championship game with a team carrying 32 seniors. Now, more than 14 months later, it all seems like a distant memory as the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the 2020 fall season to a 2021 late winter-early spring timeframe.

On top of that, there are only 32 players on the Southern Nash varsity roster as attrition from COVID and its offspring, academic woes, have contributed to one of the smallest Firebirds rosters in recent memory if not all 23 years Brian Foster has been head coach.

“When you consider not just who we don’t have coming back, but who we lost because of grades and people opting out, I mean, this is definitely going to be different, but I like the group we have,” he said. “This is one of the smaller teams, maybe the smallest team I’ve ever had as far as numbers. But it’s just been so different, you know, we got out of school last March and we still have not been back in school.”

With just three starters returning on offense and defense, the expectations might be different at Southern Nash this season. Don’t count on it, though, even with a bigger picture in view.

“If we play, we want to win. That’s not going to change, but at the same time, just the fact that they’re getting to be around each other and play football and us be around them,” Foster said. “That’s a blessing, so from that standpoint, I think that’s maybe a little different. ... I just think that we’ve all realized there’s a whole lot more important things than winning football games.”

LAST SEASON

It was the best season in Southern Nash history as the Firebirds won 15 straight games, including a 5-0 run for their fourth straight 3-A Big East Conference championship.

Senior running back Quinton Cooley rushed for a school-record 3,058 yards and 55 touchdowns, earning him all-state acclaim from the Associated Press.

Behind Cooley, who graduated a week after the championship game to enroll at Wake Forest University, and senior quarterback Matt Foster, who ran for 1,153 yards, the Firebirds averaged 8.6 yards per carry as they ran for 5,904 yards — the third-most in NCHSAA history.

KEY PERFORMERS

If there’s an heir apparent to Cooley (as well as his predecessor and Firebirds career rushing leader Zonovan Knight), it’s junior halfback Jackson Vick, who already has a handful of NCAA Division I offers. Vick has natural athletic ability and game-breaking speed and his younger brother, Jordan, who already has a handful of Division I basketball offers as a freshman, will also see action in the backfield.

Senior Chason Royal takes over at quarterback in the Firebirds’ run first, last and almost always double-wing attack with seniors Zollie Alford and Jadel Davis returning as starters on the offensive line.

On defense, seniors Terrence Raspberry, Xavien Smith, Luke Coble and Isaiah Bland return as the most experienced players.

OFFENSE

The Firebirds’ offense begins with their offensive line, and Foster is grateful to have two starters back as Alford, a 6-foot-1, 238-pound guard, and Davis, a 6-1, 192-pound tackle, anchor the right side with senior Trondryal Newsome starting at right end in the double-tight set.

Junior Gavin Bissette (5-10, 176) will start at center while, on the left side, senior JoJo Hernandez (5-11, 201) and sophomore Landen Baker (6-1, 224) are at end and tackle, respectively. Foster said seniors Elijah Bass (5-9, 197), Preston Curtis (5-11, 218) and Jackson Wall (6-0, 180) will vie for the left guard start.

In the backfield, Jackson Vick didn’t get nearly as many touches as Cooley or Foster last season but was almost as efficient, churning for 937 yards and 11 TDs at a 9.5 yard-per-carry clip, second only to Cooley. He landed on The Wilson Times’ All-Ironman squad.

“I think he’s plenty capable and he still hasn’t shown all he can do and I think a lot of that is just youth,” Foster said.

Vick’s counterpart on the opposite wing will be senior Jalen McClaston, while junior Sammy Gandy will get touches as well. Juniors Dawson May and Justin Braswell will alternate at fullback. Challenging Royal at QB is junior Cayden Darak, the starting JV quarterback in 2019 who broke his leg at the beginning of the season. Junior Jonathan Daniels will handle place-kicking chores.

DEFENSE

The Firebirds have experience at every area, starting with senior end Raspberry, a Times All-Area defender who led them in tackles (82) and tackles for loss (19). Behind Raspberry are inside linebacker Coble and outside linebacker Smith, both starters in 2019, while Bland returns to the safety position.

Sophomore Dusty Hall and senior Kameron Bryant are interior linemen while 6-2, 256-pound junior Dashon Pitts will line up on the opposite end of Raspberry. Junior Dontavious Kingsberry-Evans will join Coble in the middle while junior Zyshone Pearce is ticketed for outside linebacker duty.

Juniors Gandy and T.J. Taybron are tabbed to start at cornerback. Junior Roan Wachowicz is the punter.

WHAT’S GOOD

Athleticism and understanding of the system.

“I think we’ll have some decent team speed. I think overall that’s something that, for the low numbers we’ve got, is a positive,” Foster said. “The fact that we can have 22 starters helps us, especially with as little time as we’ve had to condition and get prepared and stuff like that. So that can be a positive, but the reverse of that is we’re just not real deep. I think we’ve got 11 offensive and defensive linemen and we usually have like 20 or something. That’s a big difference.”

WHAT NEEDS WORK

Trying to recapture all the lost time from over the summer and fall when practice time was limited. Also, trying to find new solutions in places after 22 players who had participated in fall practices didn’t return after the Christmas break.

“We’ve got three defensive starters back and three offensive starters back, so from that standpoint, I think anybody would be concerned,” Foster said. “We lost our kicker, we lost our punter. So, I think everything’s a question mark right now. And also, our spring and summer is usually so big for us, and not so much just lifting weights, but just getting them to believe in what we do. The way we start with our eighth graders in the spring and build up to it, it’s like they know exactly what to expect, they start believing in what we do. I just think that has been really, really tough on our program. We’ve just got to figure out a way to play catch-up and do the best we can.”

SCHEDULE

The Firebirds head west for the first two weeks, traveling to pair of 4-A foes in Wake County.

Southern Nash will open at Wakefield (coached by former Beddingfield head coach James Ward) and visit Heritage in Wake Forest the following Friday night. The Firebirds will play home games against Big East rivals Fike (March 12), Hunt (March 26) and Rocky Mount (April 2).

COACHES

No changes here as Robbie Kennedy returns as the defensive coordinator while offensive coordinator Brian Batchelor, Brian Rice (running backs), Sterling Leonard  (outside linebackers/receivers), Adam Monts de Oca (offensive line), Kwamaine Battle (defensive line), Jordan Bass (defensive backs) and Zack Foster (quarterbacks) are all back coaching at their alma mater this season.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE

Trying to make normalcy out of a time for which nobody ever had to come up with a game plan. That means adjusting to the schedules of players who were playing basketball, which turned out to be the whole team, so they didn’t have to choose one sport over another.

“I think we’re right where we probably should be,” Foster said. “We’re trying to figure it out, trying to stay positive with the kids and just let them have a good time and try to do what we normally do on the field and just try to make sure we’re able to run the ball offensively and try not to give up big plays defensively.”

OUTLOOK

“I think a lot is what you believe,” Foster said. “We’re not going to change anything, you know that, and I think our kids would go crazy if we did change something. So, I think you’ve got to believe in what you do, you’ve got to trust in what you do and you’ve got to understand that — you know, I tell our kids all the time there’s going to be Southern Nash football without me or with me and without them or with them. We’ve lost good people every year since. 2005. We’ve had some years we’ve not had any linemen back.

“It’s going to be different, but the expectations are still going to be the same. Whether that means we go 7-0 or 0-7, we’re going into every game to play to win.”

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