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When football returns: why this high school won’t move its games off Friday

When you ask Bryce Jeske, Anton Enoch or Brian Nunn about which days excite them the most, they’re all about the future of East Chapel Hill High School football. 

Jeske dreams of coming off on a weekend from college — where he would be playing baseball — and seeing what’s become of his former team. Enoch envisions himself helping lead the Wildcats to victories in big games. Nunn longs for Fridays and playing under the lights.

These goals separately represent what they see for the future of the program, a future that was far from set in stone a year ago when the school made the decision to not field a varsity squad due to a lack of players, particularly not enough seniors or juniors who could handle the rigors of varsity football.

Although the school insisted it was a one-year deal, some wondered how new health concerns would play out long-term in a community high on medical knowledge.

But thanks to the hard work of those at the school behind the scenes, on the sidelines and on the field, the Wildcats are back on the field on Friday nights.

NEW DIRECTION

The Friday night presence is one thing Nunn, the Wildcats’ first-year head coach, could control as he battled through a year of numerous challenges, many of which he never envisioned. Several times, opposing teams have called Nunn, hoping to move to a game to Thursday because of weather or other scheduling issues.

Every time Nunn has resisted.

“We didn’t come here to play Thursday night football,” he said. “These guys played that last year. Friday night is when you play varsity football. We’re playing varsity football.”

East Chapel Hill football has struggled mightily in the past to find success on Friday nights.

The school’s best season had more losses than wins (5-6 in 2012) and the school’s last five seasons have been marred by the problems of participation.

After forfeiting three games in 2014 because of a lack of healthy players, the school had only 24 players on the squad at the end of the 2016 season. Thirteen of those players were seniors. And with concern over the head trauma research that showed the previously unknown risks, the parents of potential Wildcats football players were becoming more worried about long-term health risks. East athletic director Randy Trumbower and staff made the decision to skip a season of varsity football.

None of that mattered to Nunn when he applied for the job this year. The East Chapel Hill job was a clear one rock, two birds opportunity: a chance to be near home (in Durham) and to be a head coach for the first time.  “You pray for a lot of things and about a lot of things,” he said. “This was an answered prayer for me and a great challenge. I’m thrilled it all worked out.”

The Wildcats went 6-3-1 as a junior varsity team last year with East coaching legend Ray Hartsfield — known primarily as a basketball savant — leading the squad. Hartsfield only wanted to do it for one season, which prompted the search that ended with Nunn.

Nunn, a 1987 Hillside High (Durham, N.C.) graduate who played at Virginia State, coached at Hillside and Smithfield-Selma before taking a couple of years off from coaching. He returned to coaching in 2002 at Indian Creek Middle School in Covington, Ga., became the school’s head coach in 2006, then joined the staff at Covington’s Eastside High School in 2008. He was the school’s JV head football coach, wide receivers coach, and head track and field coach until this past spring when he was hired at East Chapel Hill just before the end of the school year.

When Nunn started to work with the Wildcats he welcomed a squad of diverse players with mostly junior varsity experience, like Anton Enoch, a sophomore quarterback, and some, like senior running back and linebacker Bryce Jeske, returning to football after a few years away from the game.

Jeske grew up playing youth football, then a concussion happened.

He was fine after a couple of weeks not playing, but his mother wasn’t.

“It was a gradual process with her,” Jeske said of his mom’s refusal to let him play football. “I just tried to ease her worries and let her know how important of a part of doing the things I wanted to do during my senior year.”

East Chapel Hill’s Anton Enoch (6) looks to pass against Northern Durham’s Justin Rhodes (58). The East Chapel Wildcats and the Northern Durham Knights met in a football game in Durham, N.C. on Oct. 29, 2018. Northern Durham won 76-7. Steven Worthy for EducationNC

BACK TO THE BASICS, AGAIN

East is not fielding a junior varsity team this season, which is something Nunn hopes is a one-year thing. There are more than 40 players in the program, but getting that number up is of utmost importance to sustain a successful program.

Jeske admits the year has been even tougher than he expected but has still loved every minute of the football experience. After hitting .329 as a junior, he’s received offers to play baseball, but is hoping for a Division I school to come calling. Still, he raves about the football experience.

“The atmosphere of the team is different in football,” Jeske said. “You have to rely on your teammates so much every play. You’re just one of 11 guys who have to do their job in order for the team to execute and thrive. That’s not there so much in other sports. … I love baseball, but in baseball, one guy can be not paying attention in the field and if the ball isn’t hit to him, it doesn’t matter. That’s not happening on the football field.”

The lack of experience shows up in the letter count of the Wildcats’ senior class — just three of the 14 members of the 2018 squad have played football for all four years in high school — and in simpler ways.

Earlier in the season, Nunn would make a call as simple as “trips right” (indicating an offensive formation with three receivers lined up to the right side of the offensive line) and he’d get quizzical looks from players and no movement in that direction.

“I realized a few weeks into the process that I had to completely scrap my approach,” Nunn said. “We dedicated more and more time to fundamental stuff, terminology, and made the calls simpler, just going with ‘left’ or ‘right’ in play calls.”

There is much that Nunn loves about what’s gone on in his first year: a coaching staff willing to adjust on the fly repeatedly, an athletic director in Trumbower who’s given him and the program whatever they’ve asked for support-wise, and players dedicated to the process of team- and program-building.

Nunn still laments, at times, the lack of offseason work he has as opposed to what he’d become used to in football-crazy Georgia.

“There are so many dead periods here that it’s tough to get a lot done in the off-season,” he said. “And we can’t see the eighth-graders who want to play until they’re out of school for the year. In Georgia, they could come over to the high school after school and start working out in January of their eighth-grade year.”

Then there are those other things that are unique to the Chapel Hill area.

“In the summer, you’re used to kids missing time for the beach, the doctor, or a job at times,” Nunn said. “Here, we’ve got multiple kids who aren’t here during the summer because they’re in Japan or China for the summer on a study abroad project or something. It’s those kinds of things that just show you it’s a different culture here than in a lot of high schools.”

Northern Durham’s Cameron Trayloe (3) grapples and tackles East Chapel Hill’s Bryce Jeske (23) . The East Chapel Wildcats and the Northern Durham Knights met in a football game in Durham, N.C. on Oct. 29, 2018. Northern Durham won 76-7. Steven Worthy for EducationNC

BREAKING THE STREAK

The Wildcats have kept working through all of the challenges. They lost their first two games this season by a combined 98 points, then played very well in a 28-16 loss to Cummings (Burlington, N.C.) before three more lopsided losses.

It wasn’t what anyone on the Wildcat sideline expected or wanted, but it harkens back to some of the old junior varsity/varsity differences coaches are all too familiar with. 

“I knew varsity would be different than junior varsity, but it shows up in every way imaginable,” Enoch said. “Last year excited us, but it’s all about doing it on the varsity level. Every week we’re going up against teams and guys with more experience than we have.”

Then came the Wildcats meeting with Graham (Graham, N.C.) on Oct. 12. Both schools knew it would be a very competitive game with both teams in the middle of very tough schedules.

East led 14-13 at the half, but fell behind in the third quarter, 28-20. In a game where the Wildcats would give up more than 300 yards rushing — scarcely ever a precursor to a win, East found a way.

Jeske found his way to the end zone on a 2-yard TD run early in the fourth quarter. Then, with five minutes to play, Anton Enoch found his twin open for a 12-yard TD that proved to be the game-winner.

“It meant a lot, just getting that ‘W’,” Enoch said. “It showed us that the things we’re doing are working. We did the things we’ve been coached to do by coach Nunn and the rest of the coaches.”

It stopped a 15-game losing streak that dated back to Aug. 28, 2016. It was the most points in a single game since 2013.

“That was a great thing to happen for these guys,” Nunn said of the team. “From what they’d been through from August until then, these kids, they needed it. And the way our schedule set up, we knew we were going to have to get that one, someway, hell or high water.”

LOOKING AHEAD

The Wildcats end the season with three powerful teams from Durham, having already fallen 76-7 against Northern with Southern and Hillside still left on the schedule.

“We just want to come out and play and open up some eyes on the other sideline,” Nunn said. “The respect isn’t there for schools in our area from the outside. Win or lose, if we play well and execute the things we’ve worked so hard on improving in practice, this year will be a huge success. … We want people talking about the future of East Chapel Hill football and how it’s improving, what our junior and sophomore classes offer, when this season is over.”

Enoch says there’s a little excitement in the halls about the return of varsity football, but he sees a day in the future where Friday nights are truly special at East Chapel Hill.

“If we keep working hard, doing what our coaches tell us to do, there will be a day in the future that the whole program is successful on the scoreboard,” Enoch said. “That’s what I want this team to accomplish.”

Nunn is doing more hallway recruiting this year, since he wasn’t on campus to do it last year.

“The kids that want to play football are out there,” Nunn said. “If there is hesitation, it’s the parents who don’t want them to play. We just have to make sure the positives of the high school football experience don’t get lost in those discussions.”

The experience of Jeske is likely to come up in those discussions, and in the years ahead he hopes to be on the sideline watching — on a Friday night, of course — as East shines.

“For me, it’s about being able to come back here one day and know I had a part in starting the foundation of success that the younger kids in the community are going to experience here,” Jeske said. “Everything we’re doing, working for is because of our love of this game and of our teammates and our school.”

D. Clay Best

D. Clay Best spent 23 years covering high school sports for The News & Observer and its community papers. He is a 22-time N.C. Press Association award-winner and a graduate of Garner High (1990) and N.C. State (1994). On his permanent to do list: counting up all of the high schools I’ve visited to see if J. Mike Blake has passed him.