Sometimes you have to take a step back to move forward again.
After a stellar five-year run in which Hilton Head Christian won three SCISA state titles, played for another and never missed the playoffs, the Eagles found themselves not quite in position to replace that core group once it moved through.
The result was a 2-7 mark in Matt Smith’s first season as head coach, as seven freshman starters went about learning on the job.
“I think that’s just where our (class distribution) happened to be,” Smith said. “Their time just came.”
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The good news, of course, is that freshmen eventually become sophomores. Now the question is whether last year was merely a blip before a new core group pushes the Eagles back toward the lofty heights of recent years.
“I think they’re motivated,” said Smith, who went 25-12 while coaching Savannah’s Bible Baptist earlier in the decade.
“They took their lumps last year, but they’re looking forward to getting out there and showing that they’ve gotten bigger and stronger and they’ve improved. We have 20 on the roster, and all 20 are (good) players.”
Senior James Bartholomew figures to be the centerpiece, the Eagles’ top receiver but also able to line up in the backfield or behind center. He’s also the free safety at the back of their 4-4-3 defense.
“He’s probably our big playmaker,” Smith said. “And we’ve got a whole slew of sophomores that really worked on it over the summer. Those guys have really stepped up.”
Running backs Zachariah Doe (294 yards) and Maximillian Lowery got plenty of experience last year. Lineman Jacob Zook is another sophomore who Smith thinks is ready for a breakout.
The Eagles will break in a new quarterback, as sophomore Dargan Cherry replaces the graduated Johnh Burke. The trenches also should get a boost from the arrival of Tucker Walters, a transfer who moved to the area from Connecticut.
“He’s been very impressive early on,” Smith said. “He’ll probably start both ways for us. He looks like a nice addition to our team.”
Smith said he’s still waiting for leaders to step up, with Andy Ballard and Mac Viljac now gone after helping ride last year’s rough waters. Ballard, whose senior season was hampered by a nagging ankle injury, is back as one of Smith’s assistants this year.
Hilton Head Christian Eagles
REGION: SCISA Class 2A, Region 1
COACH: Matt Smith (second year, 2-7)
2015 RECORD: 2-7 (0-4 region)
KEY RETURNERS: RB/S James Bartholomew, OL/LB Craig Oliver, OL/DL Jacob Zook, RB Zachariah Doe, WR/DE Cole Webster, RB/DB Maximillian Lowery
BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The lumps of last year start to bear fruit, as a stronger, more mature squad finds its footing with each passing week. The season opens with three games that are at least tossups, so a fast start could build momentum into the meat of the schedule.
- Aug. 19: vs. John Paul II, 7 p.m.
- Aug. 26: at First Presbyterian, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 2: Open
- Sept. 9: vs. First Baptist, 7 p.m.
- Sept. 16: vs. Colleton Prep, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 23: at Northwood Academy, 7:30 p.m.
- Sept. 30: vs. Thomas Heyward, 7 p.m.
- Oct. 7: at Laurence Manning Academy, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 14: vs. St. Andrew's, 7 p.m.
- Oct. 21: at Bethesda Academy, 7:30 p.m.
- Oct. 28: at Hilton Head Prep, 4 p.m.