PILOT MOUNTAIN — At this time last year, the East Surry football team was preparing for a 2015 burdened with enormous expectations.
The Cardinals’ roster was stacked with experienced seniors on both sides of the ball, and East Surry had its best shot in years to bring a state championship back to Pilot Mountain.
Head coach David Diamont’s team ran the table in the regular season and entered the playoffs with those same high hopes, but East Surry’s title dreams came to a close in a 28-14 loss to conference rival Walkertown. The Cardinals closed the year with a tremendous 13-1 record, but two wins shy of their lofty goal.
As East Surry prepares for the 2016 campaign, there is a distinctly different feel among the Cardinals. Youth has replaced experience, but that doesn’t mean the Cardinals won’t hold themselves to the similar standards set before this season. The new players welcome the high expectations that come with playing football for East Surry, the two-time defending Northwest champions.
“I think in the eyes of other teams, we’re being overlooked,” running back Joey Ray said. “I like being the underdog. It’s one day at a time, but we really believe we’re going to make it three straight conference championships.”
If the Cardinals are going to keep teams like Mount Airy and Walkertown off the throne of the Northwest, Ray is going to play a major role. The junior tailback is the only offensive player returning in 2016 who scored more than two touchdowns last season. In total, he rushed for 1,135 yards and found the end zone 26 times in 2015.
Ray figures to be an even bigger part of the East Surry offense this season, and Coach Diamont is confident that Ray is ready for the heavier workload.
“He’s worked phenomenally hard in the offseason to make his body stronger and to get quicker,” Diamont said. “What he did last year as a sophomore was very impressive, and we’re going to need him to put up some similar performances this year.”
Joining Ray out of the backfield will be halfback Mitchell Edwards and fullbacks Jose Juarez and Colt Bullington. The Cardinals hardly used fullbacks last year with their depth of receivers and devastating passing game, but Diamont hasn’t ruled out a return to his more conventional I-formation in 2016.
Running the offense under center will be junior quarterback Connor Sheets. The lefty gained minimal experience last season backing up 2015 Conference Offensive Player of the Year Tyler Smith, and only attempted two passes. Still, Diamont has confidence in Sheets’ ability as a thrower, and also believes his quarterback will cause problems as a scrambler and runner this season.
Backing up Sheets will be fellow junior Trevor Hauser, who started for the East Surry junior varsity team last year. Diamont expects both players will see time on defense this season, so it is imperative they are both prepared to lead the offense.
“Both those guys would work hard in a dark room by themselves,” Diamont said. “They’re that good of people, and they’re both making significant strides.”
Wide receiver might be the biggest hole for East Surry, with Jack Shabdue’s six catches providing the most experience coming back in 2016.
Joining Shabdue will be senior Andrew Hooker, juniors Austin Pardue and Nick Hicks, and sophomore Logan Ray. Like the fullback spot, playing time for tight ends was hard to come by last year, but seniors Blake Marion and Garrett Barker are sure to get some passes thrown their way this season.
The unit East Surry has been most impressed with this offseason is the offensive line. All-Conference center Logan Moore headlines the group, along with returning senior guard Luis Suarez. Will Felts will play the other guard spot, with Morgan East and Nathan Vass serving as the offensive tackles this season.
“Everyone is stepping up,” Suarez said. “I think the whole offensive line is hungry and playing really physical this year. We know we don’t have to get our names in the paper as long as we know we did our job.”
Defensively, the Cardinals have a little added pressure coming into the season. With so many departures on the offensive side of the ball, it will be difficult for East Surry to average 45.1 points per game again this season.
Yet, while the offense might need to find a new identity in 2016, defensive coordinator Randy Marion doesn’t envision needing to make many changes to his multiple defense for the upcoming season.
The success will start up front with three returning players. Suarez and Moore bring experience to the interior of the defensive line, and Barker, an all-conference selection last year with three sacks and 44 tackles, will join newcomer Russell Varner as the defensive ends this season.
“That’s where it all starts,” Marion said. “If you want to have a strong suit early in the year, you definitely want it to be your defensive line.”
At linebacker, Bullington, Hauser, Chris Cosgrove and Stephen Creech will all see time. Coach Marion was concerned coming into the first week of practice with this young group’s communication, but he’s been impressed by Cosgrove’s ability to step in as the vocal leader of the defense. The rising senior was third on East Surry with 69 tackles in 2015.
East Surry’s secondary will comprise of four players who earned playing time last season, even though they didn’t start for the Cardinals. Shabdue, Hooker, Edwards and Sheets all return, but Coach Marion admits he will need to find playing time for freshman Stephen Gosnell, who shined over the summer and through the first two weeks of practice.
Edwards will see a majority of his time in the secondary, but Marion won’t be shy about taking advantage of the sophomore’s versatility and using him in a variety of roles on the defense.
“Mitchell’s one of those guys we can put wherever we need him,” Marion said. “He’s a very imposing kid, and from one week to the next, other teams are going to know where he’s going to play.
The special teams department will feature all fresh faces for the Cardinals this season. Ryan Sutterby and Peyton Chaney are battling to replace the ultra-reliable Devon Goble as East Surry’s placekicker this season. Sheets and Hauser, the two East Surry quarterbacks, are also battling for the starting punter spot this season.
All of these new roles for the Cardinal players has Diamont excited for the start of the season. One of his favorite parts about being a high school football coach is developing talent, and East Surry will get to test that development this season.
“Honestly, we don’t know how good we can be this year,” Diamont said. “We think we’ve got some kids who can get the job done, but it’s going to become more clear once we start going at it with other teams and facing some adversity.”