RED SPRINGS — When walking into the weight room at Red Springs High School this summer, a visitor wouldn’t be able to guess the team was lacking a head coach.
Through shouts of encouragement, an organized group of players follow the directions of an assistant coach as they go through their routines.
“We are going to have a good season,” said Justin Locklear, a junior offensive lineman for the Red Devils. “We’re going to work hard and have a better season than we did last year.”
While most teams in Robeson County have worked through summer drills and 7-on-7 scrimmages, the Red Devils and their counterparts at South Robeson are two teams that haven’t even considered lining up in a football formation and are focused on off-the-field improvements.
More than 20 of the Red Devils have gathered in the weight room, doing what they can to be prepared for when a new head coach is selected later this month.
“We just feel like we’re getting stronger and while we’re in here we’re working hard and bonding like a team,” said Kenston Oxendine, a sophomore on the defensive line. “Just coming together and driving each other to do better.”
The determination is shared all around the team, which has been without a head coach since George Coltharp left to become the offensive coordinator at Pine Forest last month.
“We’ve usually had good numbers come up here and a lot of young guys,” junior Hayden Bannick said. “It’s pretty good.”
The push to show up for workouts in the weight room has impressed the remaining coaches. Dennis Bannick, one of two assistants left, spoke highly of the drive the team is showing.
“Getting up early in the morning on your summer vacation says a lot, that they want to get better,” Bannick said. “I try to teach them, let’s control the factors that we have control over, because Xs and Os are great, but if you’re not in shape and you’re not strong, it doesn’t matter what system you’re gonna run.”
The attitude of being stronger is what has been pushing them in the weight room during the early summer.
“A coach leaving, it’s a setback,” Oxendine said. “But we’re gonna come back stronger. We’ve got a bunch of returning guys because we were young last year, and we’re just going to be stronger and faster.”
Having Bannick around is also a help, as the team is still able to work with a familiar face behind them.
“When you have another coach that can step up and do what Coach Bannick’s doing, that’s good,” Locklear said.
An extra bump in the road the team has been dealing with is althetes involved in other sports like baseball and basketball, but Bannick has been impressed with the turnout at the weightlifting sessions.
“We share a lot of athletes here at Red Springs, so, for the numbers, 20, it’s not bad,” Bannick said. “Considering we have those other things we have to go up against in the month of June.”
The benefits of just focusing on the weight room are being seen by not just the coaching staff either, but by members of the team as well.
“We are definitely getting stronger,” Hayden Bannick said. “(The) offensive line and defensive line will be a lot better for blocking and getting through the line.”
“We are going to get stronger and more mental and be able to play harder in the fourth quarter as we get fit,” Locklear said.
Red Springs isn’t the only team putting all it’s summer efforts into the weight room. South Robeson has been similarly focused on getting in shape for the Mustangs, but for a much different reason.
“We’re just so far behind in weight training that I feel like the weight room is more important than any Xs and Os in winning ball games,” said Clay Jernigan, who is stepping into his first year as the head coach for the Mustangs. “You win your ballgames by what you do in the offseason. It takes time to build strength and that’s what we’re really working on right now.”
Jernigan doesn’t try to hide how important he feels working in the weight room really will be. Members of the team have to show up to 10 weight room sessions throughout the summer to receive a helmet, and 15 to receive the rest of their gear. No singular player is bigger than the rule.
“My seniors, if they do what they are supposed to, they get first choice but they have to earn that,” Jernigan said. “I don’t sugar coat anything to them. I just tell them like it is.”
The athletes are buying into the system as well.
“It’s going pretty good,” Corbin Hunt, a senior offensive lineman said. “We’re getting stronger and everybody’s coming to the weight room religiously, lifting every day.”
Jernigan has tried to make it as easy as possible for his players to make their weight sessions as well, opening up the training room at eight in the morning and staying until five in the afternoon.
“To me that weeds out who your go-to guys want to be and who’s not going to be a go-to guy,” Jernigan said. “You see how their work ethic is in the weight room, you know what type of work ethic they’re going to have in practice or in a game.”
Jernigan said the goal is to keep kids hungry. With coaching experience at several schools before his stop at South Robeson, he has seen kids get burnt out on the normal routine of practice before the season even begins.
“It can get monotonous,” Jernigan said. “Every time I leave the field when I’m coaching, I want to leave with ‘coach can we run one more play.’ Then my answer will be ‘well, we have tomorrow’ and we’ll do that over and over and over, and that builds up. You want that. You don’t want it just to plateau out and be the same thing each day.”
The results are starting to show, and the athletes themselves are seeing the differences.
“Everybody’s maxes are going up, everybody’s getting stronger and working harder,” Hunt said.
Jernigan feels the results have been positive, but the team isn’t to where he would like it to be yet.
“Right now I feel like we’re not where we need to be to be to be very very competitive,” Jernigan said. “I think we can get there, but it takes hard work to get there.
“You’re never going to be satisfied in the weight room. You’re always wanting to be stronger, stronger, stronger.”
The end goal for Jernigan is to build a tradition South Robeson can be proud of. Something where kids in the future can look at the team and future teams as where it all started.
“When I was growing up, you always heard the names of the people who played before you,” Jernigan said. “You’d hear it from all the coaches, and it sort of motivated us, we wanted to leave our name at the school just like the people before us. And that’s what I want to get these kids to want.”