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The Sumter Item hosted its second annual Media Day on Saturday. The local high school coaches and players had a chance to talk about the upcoming football season in a day that was packed with great energy and information. As the new guy in town, I was thrown right into the thick of things to get a taste of what the area has to offer before the season kicks off. Here are my five biggest takeaways from the busy Saturday inside - and outside - of the University of South Carolina Sumter's Arts & Letters Building.
New coaches are hitting the ground running
The area has had a number of big coaching changes in the last couple of seasons. Manning High School and Laurence Manning Academy both have new head coaches coming into the season, while Scott's Branch welcomed longtime coach Leonard Johnson back to head coaching duties. Thomas Sumter Academy and Clarendon Hall have second-year head coaches of their own in Randy Stogner and Anthony Ritenour, respectively. Despite the changes, these coaches and their teams are coming out swinging.
Austin Floyd comes to Laurence Manning from Lamar High School, where he was an assistant coach. He's young at the ripe age of 25, but he's using that youth to his advantage as he works to bond with his players. His quarterback, Burgess Jordan, sees the importance of a coach that comes in and wants the best for his players.
"It's helped us a lot and he's helped us come together as a team for sure," Jordan said of Floyd, who is an East Clarendon High graduate. "He's giving us chances to get to know him, which helps us with everything. It helps with communication and things like that. It's really helped us bond as a team to work on the little things. He wants us to be good on and off the field and you can't ask for more than that."
On top of a desire to bond with his players, Floyd is bringing a desire to win. He thinks the Swampcats can succeed this year, and he plans on doing what it takes to win.
"There has to be a sense of urgency. I don't care if it's a conference game or a non-conference game, I want to win," said the new head coach. "We know kind of who the top dog is (in SCISA 3A), but from 2 to 10 it can be wide open. For us to compete, we have to stay healthy and we've gotta have a sense of urgency and every game does matter for that (playoff) seeding."
Over at Manning, the Monarchs are preparing for their first season under Reggie Kennedy, though he comes to the job with plenty of head coaching experience. Kennedy likes what he's seen so far, and he's trying to make sure his athletes bring a winning mindset into the season.
"All he talks about are state championships," said senior linebacker and wide receiver Aaron Smith of Kennedy, who won a 1A state title as a player at East Clarendon in 1985 and led Sumter to the 2013 4A Division I title game. "That's what we're focused on: state championships. Of course, we have other goals to accomplish, we want to go 10-0, we want to win our region and get three home playoff games, beat Dillion and go on to a state championship."
None of these coaches are looking for a grace period before they start winning, which sets a tone of confidence for their students.
Hard work this off-season comes with optimism
The area schools had up-and-down seasons in 2018, but those teams aren't carrying that negative energy into '19. Every player and coach we talked with during the media day talked about the excellent energy that came with their early practices and summer activities. While no coach or player is going to come in and say that they think they're going to struggle this season, the confidence across the board was good to see from teams that struggled last season.
Wilson Hall went 3-7 last year, making an early exit in the playoffs, but that doesn't mean the Barons aren't coming into the season with confidence. Head coach Adam Jarecki and the Barons opened the festivities on Saturday at 10 a.m. and set a tone of confidence that other schools followed up on.
"The entire attitude, the entire way of doing things has had such a positive change going into this season. We spent some money and renovated our weight room and our guys kind of bought into that back in November," said Jarecki. "It showed throughout the summer workouts. We had some of the best summer workouts we've had the entire time (I've been here). Right there, that's kind of a start and that's where you want to get to."
A total of seven area schools had three wins or fewer last season, but you wouldn't know it by the way players and coaches carried themselves on Saturday. The first step to breaking out of a funk is having faith that you can break out. Those schools that struggled last year took a good first step this weekend.
Several schools brought big numbers and a lot of energy
Sumter High came ready to go on Saturday, bringing their band, cheerleaders and color guard for an energetic performance that brought a spark to the event in the middle of the day. The Crestwood band and cheerleaders followed a bit later, and the Lakewood band and cheerleaders capped off the day with another big performance before their players and head coach spoke. It wasn't just bands that brought energy though. Scott's Branch brought its entire football team to support the two players and Johnson on stage. Little things like that are a great example of the passion this area has for football.
Another example of that passion was the awesome turnout in general. Parents and friends came to watch the event in person, but the great support for the community online was amazing to see. As someone that's new to the area, I was wowed by how much the community rallied around the event, making it even more special for me.
A crash course on local football
The Item Media Day was just my third day with The Item, so I'm still getting a feel for the sports in the area. Getting to sit down and talk a little shop with players and coaches from all 12 high schools was exactly what I needed to get a feel for what kind of football schools play down here. I was able to hear firsthand the styles of offense and defense each school likes to run so I know what to keep an eye out for on Friday nights. There's still a lot more for me to pick up on as I get used to the area, but a 1-day crash course in each of these programs was the ideal way to get started.
The perfect introduction
My biggest takeaway was just how perfect an introduction this event was for me. I was so happy I had the chance to sit down and talk to so many great players and coaches all in one day. I felt so welcomed by everyone I met throughout the day. As someone who has lived in Missouri my entire life before a couple of weeks ago, the southern hospitality was spectacular. I'm really looking forward to getting to know this community even more as I spend more time with The Item, but I couldn't have asked for a much better introduction to the area.
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