A record number of kids attending an area football camp portended a special season ahead.
The notion was confirmed a few weeks ago when the WNC Youth Football and Cheer playoffs featured teams representing the Swannanoa Valley for the first time since 2011.
The 9- and 10-year-old mite team as well as the 11- through 13-year-old midget squad both suffered opening round losses. But both teams renewed a sense of optimism for the entire league.
The midget Warhorses finished the season with two victories, just enough to qualify for the playoffs, head coach Cut Presley said. But the number of victories was not important for Presley, who returned to coach this season after several years away from the game.
“This is the youngest group of kids I’ve ever coached,” said Presley, who spent over a decade as a coach on the high school level. “I was a little skeptical at first about how much they could learn, how well they would respond or what they could actually do. But they really surprised me because they were head and shoulders above what I anticipated coming in.”
Presley said that the coaching staff focused on fundamentals from the beginning, and the hard work by the players paid off.
“We got a lot better with tackling and our general football knowledge throughout the season,” he said. “I also feel like most of what we learned this year were life lessons and more than just football.”
Making the playoffs provided a boost in confidence for players on Presley’s team, many of whom had never played organized football before. The season also helped prepare many of the midget Warhorses for middle school football and beyond. The players have a solid foundation upon which to build next season.
“In a couple of years, after running this same system over and over, they’re going to get so much better at it,” Presley said. “I expect next year to be even better for the entire league. We should be winning a lot of games with many of our kids coming in and already knowing the system.”
Presley’s players are being equipped with the tools to play the game beyond the youth league. The training his counterpart - the mites coach - is giving his players will benefit the midget team in the coming years.
Jeremy Knighton entered his first season coaching football with a high degree of uncertainty about whether or not he would have a team to guide.
“We only had like six kids when we started camp,” Knighton said.
But as his roster filled out, he drew from his experience at a pre-season coaching clinic put on by Owen High School head coach Nathan Padgett. The camp was designed to create synergy between the youth program and the high school team by using similar plays and terminology in each.
“I had zero experience in coaching football coming in,” Knighton said. “But Coach Padgett brought all of the youth league coaches up to the high school before the season started and fed us some sausage biscuits. But more importantly, he fed a program.”
Knighton said that support from the high school coaching staff has been crucial in the development of Warhorse Youth Football.
“I really have to give it to Nathan (Padgett),” Knighton said. “He was there on Saturdays in the box at our home games,” Knighton said. “He knows our kids’ names. And do you know how big that is for our kids when the varsity high school coach knows your name? That’s a big deal.”
Knighton believe the high-energy approach has helped keep his young team focused. The players have responded well to it, he said.
League president Darren Messer was pleased to see the organization continue the growth he’s witnessed since it reorganized in 2013.
“I think the success we have seen this year is a sign of dedication from our coaches and volunteers,” he said. “Our higher numbers this year are also a sign of how that is helping us grow.”
Messer hopes to see more growth as the Warhorse Youth Football program continues to establish its presence among youth in the Swannanoa Valley.
“We need to keep putting a quality product out in front of the kids, parents and community,” Messer said. “We need to keep improving on the field and continue to work hard to make sure that those kids keep wanting to come back.”