Orange County high school football teams begin official practice next week in preparation for their conference-only campaigns that are set to begin on Feb. 26.
Ahead of the official start to the season, here’s a look at where some Orange County teams stand entering their first day of official practice.
Cedar Ridge High School
First-year Cedar Ridge head coach Cory Lea’s overarching goal for his team is to improve after winning only one game last season. Lea’s plan to improve Cedar Ridge football centers around playing disciplined football and players understanding their assignments.
Key contributors returning from last season, such as junior offensive lineman Jared Clayton, senior wide receiver Elijah Whitaker and junior outside linebacker Jake Mergenthal are strong foundations for Lea and the Fighting Red Wolves to build around.
Sophomore Aiden Seagroves will likely rely heavily on Clayton’s pass-blocking and Whitaker’s playmaking during his first season as Cedar Ridge’s starting quarterback.
“It’s going to be interesting because he’s never played quarterback before,” Lea said. “He’s doing a good job. He’s coming along. I expect him to do pretty well."
Although Cedar Ridge's improvement will be an uphill battle, the team at least doesn't have to worry about having enough players, which is threatening the seasons of some Orange County football teams during the pandemic.
Cedar Ridge plans to start its season at home against Northwood on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.
East Chapel Hill High School
Despite winning just two games last season, senior all-conference quarterback Anthon Enoch and his twin, all-conference wide receiver Anthony Enoch, give East Chapel Hill a foundation to build on after finishing sixth in the Big 8 Conference last season.
With the NCHSAA reworking sports seasons and schedules throughout the calendar due to COVID-19, several players the Wildcats rely on are occupied with other sports. It’s made practicing a struggle, and it makes head coach Brian Nunn concerned if they’ll have enough players to field a team.
If the Wildcats find enough players, they’ll have two of the Big 8’s premier players in the Enoch twins eager to lead them. But with all the uncertainty and questions surrounding this season, Nunn’s main goal for the Wildcats isn’t about wins and losses — it's about the experience of returning to a sense of normalcy.
“Honestly, I just want to be able to play,” Nunn said. “I’m just hoping we can get on the field and play a game on Feb. 26.”
The Wildcats are scheduled to kick off the season against Orange High School on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.
Orange High School
Like Cedar Ridge, Orange is one of the few teams in the Big 8 Conference replacing their starting quarterbacks from last season. But senior Nigel Slanker, the Panthers' new starting quarterback, isn’t inexperienced. This is Slanker’s fourth season on the team and his second in offensive coordinator Marty Scotten’s system. Head coach Van Smith said Slanker’s leadership, experience and work ethic during the offseason impressed him.
Orange returns half of its defensive starters from a unit that held conference opponents to an average of 22 points per game last season. Continuity on defense will help Slanker and the inexperienced Orange offense, which only returns a handful starters, while the new starters adjust to increased playing time.
Smith is eager to improve on Orange’s 4-3 conference record and fourth-place finish in the Big 8, but he’s also just grateful for having a season during the pandemic.
“If there ever was a season where you just want to go out there and try to have some fun and not worry about winning, it’s this season," Smith said.
Orange starts its season on the road against East Chapel Hill on Feb. 26 at 7 p.m.