Sophomores giving Bearcats a hopeful push in a winning direction

bmccormick@heraldonline.comSeptember 5, 2013 

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    Question that will be answered: Which side will make the least mistakes? Conway’s surprise season-opening loss to Georgetown, the Tigers’ first since 1991, was riddled by such miscues, as was Rock Hill’s loss to Dorman. Who can tighten up their excecution and pull out a win?

    Overlooked: Rock Hill’s defense was much maligned last season, and deservedly so. The Bearcats gave up nearly 33 points per game, but showed in their Week 1 loss to Dorman that they’ve already improved this year. “That’s what we needed to see going into the season,” Bearcat coach Joe Montgomery said about his stoppers. “The kids played hard and made tackles; they weren’t afraid of contact. They were not intimidated by the size factor of Dorman.”

    Exclamation point: Rock Hill’s return to power hinges on its defensive improvement. Over the last three seasons, the Bearcats are 11-4 when they hold opponents to less than 26 points (last week’s total allowed to Dorman). When they allow more than 26 points, Joe Montgomery’s crew is 2-16.

When Da’Chon Weatherspoon blocked two separate Dorman Cavaliers, clearing the edge for Rock Hill running back Justin Stokes to scamper 21 yards for a touchdown last Friday night, it was a play that encapsulated all that’s going right for the Bearcats at the moment.

Weatherspoon, one of a number of sophomores making an early impact at the varsity level, produced a pair of effort plays that don’t show up in the official stats. There’s hope in the Rock Hill program in large part due to this year’s precocious class of 27 10th graders playing varsity.

Then there is Stokes. The fourth quarter score was his third touchdown of the game, to go with 166 yards rushing on 25 carries. A senior, Stokes waited two years for his turn to start and is squeezing the opportunity in front of him now with both mitts.

And there was the fact Stokes’ third touchdown run of the game pulled the Bearcats to within three of the state’s No. 9-ranked team, Dorman. That Rock Hill ultimately fell short in trying to erase a 26-7 deficit is important too. Joe Montgomery’s team just scored its first moral victory of the season, and it’s already tired of them.

“Last week, it picked up a lot of people’s heads, seeing that Rock Hill could stay in the game with the No. 9 team in the state,” Stokes said. “It cannot last that long. We have to look forward to next week. We should have won that game. We made a lot of mistakes.”

Youth will be on full display when the Bearcats host Conway Friday night at District 3 Stadium. Both teams rely on talented sophomores, but in at least Rock Hill’s case, it’s because they’re the best players available.

“We’re gonna play the one that practices the best, on a consistent basis, Monday through Thursday,” said Montgomery, “and I don’t care what grade they’re in.”

Weatherspoon, and Thailand Adams, and Tim Sherer and Donavon Perryman aren’t your normal-sized sophomores. Weatherspoon, a receiver, checks in at 6-foot-1, 190 pounds. Adams, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound pass-catcher, was a member of Bearcat track and field’s 4x100-meter field state qualifying relay last year as a freshman, and is the burner of the group. Sherer is a staunchly-built 5-foot-10, 185-pound backup to Stokes. Starting linebacker Donavon Perryman, who made 11 tackles last week against Dorman, is also 6-foot, 190 pounds.

It’s unlikely these kids were shoved in lockers as freshmen.

“All we want to do is put Rock Hill back on the map,” Perryman said before Wednesday’s practice, “and make everybody stop talking about South Pointe and Northwestern, and start talking about Rock Hill. That’s a goal we will do anything to get to.”

The Bearcats won 101 games, four region championships and two state titles from 2000 to 2009, but are 15-20 the last three seasons.

The sophomore newcomers don’t care about any of that though. Rock Hill’s ninth grade football team went 8-2 last year, finishing second in the region, and the sophomores, along with new offensive coordinator Bubba Pittman who came over from Northwestern, are used to winning.

The young guns give Rock Hill’s program, and its fans, hope that the Bearcats can return to the upper echelons of Class AAAA football soon. But for seniors like Stokes, receiver Jermaine White and defensive lineman Cam Bell, there isn’t time to wait. The talented sophomores strengthen the belief that Rock Hill can win now.

“They’ve been winning all the way through middle school and ninth grade, and they’ll do the same here,” Montgomery said. “It’s a lot of fun to coach them too, because they’re young and enthusiastic. Those kids really have a lot of fun playing.”

As cut and chiseled as the sophomores are, it’s important to remember that some of them aren’t even 15 years old yet. Perryman admitted that he cried with joy shortly before his first varsity start.

“It was all hitting me at once,” he said. “I really wasn’t nervous though because adrenaline took over.”

Boy, did it. Perryman’s first solo varsity tackle was a seven-yard sack of Dorman quarterback Grayland Fowler.

“At first, it didn’t feel like anything, just felt like I made a play. I needed to make sure that even though I was excited, I needed to play the next play,” he said. “But after that, everything hit and I was like, ‘wow, this is amazing. I actually did that?’”

There will be times when the young guns make mistakes, when they’re over-awed, or simply over-matched by larger and savvier opponents.

“It’s hard for sophomores to play, in 4A football, at a consistent level. That’s the difference between them and a senior, that lack of experience,” said Montgomery. “That’s what you hope they’re able to accomplish, playing just as they’re coached to do.”

The inconsistency showed against Dorman. Rock Hill fumbled five times (recovering two), threw an interception, and struggled in the kicking game, which Montgomery said cost his team the win. The Bearcats were also only 5 of 19 on third down, though they did convert 5 of 9 fourth down tries.

Friday the Bearcats will host a similarly fresh-faced Conway Tigers team. Chuck Jordan’s squad has 14 sophomores, including the leading rusher, Cortez Brown, and receiver, 6-foot-3, 200-pound Division I prospect Bryan Edwards. Like Rock Hill’s 10th graders, the Tiger youngsters have the physical builds to succeed at the varsity level. But so does everyone else.

“It’s all mental, man,” Stokes said. “They have the size; they have the speed and talent to be a varsity player. But mentally they have to be in the game the whole game and they can’t let one mistake drop them out of the game.”

Montgomery was encouraged by his team’s fight-back last week against Dorman, saying he expected it. But his team needed a leader to make a play on that last drive, to complete the turnaround. When, if, the situation arises again Friday versus Conway, Montgomery doesn’t care what grade the difference-maker happens to be in, whether it’s Stokes punching in a TD run, or Weatherspoon carving open a running lane.

“That leadership factor is the guy that doesn’t want to get beat, and gets in and gets competitive.”

Regardless of age, Rock Hill has a bunch more of those cats this season.

Bret McCormick •  329-4032. Twitter: @BretJust1T

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