Most high school athletes remember how it felt during the summer and fall of 2020 when uncertainty dominated the NCHSAA landscape.
The uncertainty of not being able to play at all and the relief that came with the hectic and flawed but still much better than nothing condensed season in spring 2021.
For the Washington County football team, the statewide confusion and frustration felt at the start of the pandemic lingered long after the rest of the state resumed a more normal schedule in the summer of 2021.
“It’s tough,” head coach Larry Dale said. “These kids just want to play sports. Especially in our community, there’s no movie theaters or bowling alleys and stuff like that, so what do they do? They play sports.”
“It was a spiritual break,” Eaelan Brown-Sanders said. “We were building momentum as a team as a program, but then they came and shut it down.”
The county opted out of athletics in the Spring 2021 condensed schedule, and no Panther teams participated.
The Panthers watched their conference rivals go through a season and the state champions were crowned, waiting for an opportunity to get back to normal in 2021 even as that class completely missed out on its senior season.
Normalcy hasn’t really fully returned for anyone in the fall of 2021, as clusters and quarantines have still caused many games to be postponed, moved or canceled, but it has mostly not returned for the Panthers.
The team played five games in the season before being completely shut down by the county again and having their season cut in half.
“Every time we had to tell the guys we had to go back to quarantine, you could see the pain on their faces,” Dale said. “So it was hard.”
“40, 50, 60 kids as a team, we worked hard every day in practice,” Brown-Sanders said. “We improve, then it stops.”
“It was a bit heartbreaking because you worked,” added Malkijah Agyapong.
By doing some basic math, one can quickly guess that this senior class of Panthers hasn’t even had the opportunity to play a full season since their freshman year.
While nearly every student and athlete has faced developmental challenges due to the pandemic, the Panthers will be at a distinct disadvantage in terms of playing experience when they step onto the field.
To help combat this, Dale has focused on getting the team into the weight room and ensuring smaller portions of the playbook are memorized and mastered before opening the doors further. things.
Dale left his position as head coach at Granville Central after the 2019 season to bring his family closer to the coastal region of the state.
After a year on the First Flight staff, he landed the Washington County head coaching job in the summer of 2021 after the position had been essentially vacant since the start of 2020.
Now, his job is to guide this year’s team through an experience his players have never had before while trying to set them up for success in a tough conference.
“There’s a team about 70 miles from us that wears purple and gold that’s been damn good every year,” Dale said, referring to Tarboro. “I have the utmost respect for them… These guys, they’ve never played against them, ever.”
While the challenges can be strenuous, the sheer opportunity to get through a full season is one the program relishes.
“Seeing the joy that we persevered and overcame that, the joy that these guys have,” Dale said. “They take every moment very seriously…it means everything to them. I believe it’s because it was taken away, so now they see how important it was to them.”
The joy the kids and the community will experience is a win in itself, but Dale and the players are always focused on winning games and finding success.
One of the reasons the program believes this is possible is a large increase in attendance from previous years, despite the lack of football the school community has seen and played in recent years.
“We have 60 children who want to play football,” Keivione Morore said. “As elders, we just have to discipline them and be their role models.”
“We want to compete for a conference championship and make a run in the playoffs,” Dale said. “Plymouth High School has had a tradition over the years. These kids want it, and the community wants it too, and so do I.”