It’s early May at Wando High School and spring football practice is well underway, all of it.
The varsity and junior varsity teams file orderly out of the stadium locker rooms toward the proving grounds practice fields and begin without prompt.
Other Warriors, considerably younger, hop from their parents’ minivans and SUVS in the parking lot and hurry along toward a nearby field. A Wando assistant greets them at the gate and asks their name, age, position and school. The players, dressed in Wando fatigues, reel off school names like Cario, Laing and Moultrie before proceeding onto the Warriors practice field.
“Clean it up,” Wando assistant coach Trey Nichols encourages the middle schoolers as they shuffle through warm-ups. “Everything that we do has to be cleaner from now on. You’re Warriors now.”
Wando introduced a Warriors football team for local seventh and eighth graders for the first time this spring. The Wando C-Team will operate within the Warriors football program and will be fully funded by the Charleston County School District, along with C-Teams of seven other local high schools.
“When I first arrived in town, I couldn’t believe this wasn’t already in place,” said Jimmy Noonan, who’ll be entering this 11th season as head coach of the Warriors this fall. “There’s really no way for a program to be consistent without it. You’re, in essence, two to three years behind the folks you’re having to compete against.”
Noonan attended high school in Sumter, which, like a lot of areas around the state, has middle school football funded by the school district and operated by the middle schools. The East Cooper area has for so long relied on the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department to run its middle school football. Those Laing, Moultrie, Cario and Christ Our King teams wear the names of the middle schools but are organized by the recreation department and coached by volunteers, making it difficult for Wando to have any sort of impactful influence. Those recreation teams will still be available in the fall, despite the added opportunity for seventh and eighth graders to now play for the Wando C-Team.
“We’re not wanting to harm our recreational leagues by any means,” Noonan said. “However, most of the state, they don’t have recreational football beyond grade six. So what we’re doing, in essence, is catching up with those folks who are winning championships each year.”
Fort Dorchester, in 2015, is the only Lowcountry team of the past 19 years to win a state championship in Class AAAA Division I or higher — in which Wando has also been aligned.
“I think that’s a direct implication that there aren’t feeder systems in place,” Noonan said.
Byrnes High School in Duncan, by comparison, has won four state titles at the same level since 2007. Byrnes is well known for its feeder system that stretches through middle school into the local recreation leagues. Byrnes is the only S.C. High School League school for the two middle schools in Spartanburg District Five to rise into. By the time players reach the Rebels B-Team or junior varsity, they’ve already spent years learning the Rebels’ playbook and terminology.
Dutch Fork in Irmo has won the past three straight AAAAA state championships and a AAAA Division I title in 2013. Dutch Fork shares Lexington-Richland District Five with Irmo and Chapin but, because of the way the attendance zones are drawn, the Silver Foxes have two middle schools that feed directly to them.
“It’s certainly an advantage when you’re able to have that kind of control with not only the middle school teams but the coaches and the systems and the terminology,” Summerville coach Joe Call said. Summerville has been eliminated from the postseason the past three years by Dutch Fork. The Green Wave has won 12 state championships, although only one in the past 32 years. “We try to do some of that here. We want those coaches and players to feel a part of our program. We help the kids learn the fundamentals, the accountability, the mentality of our program. That’s where you really start influencing the kids.”
The intangibles only go so far though. Dorchester County Two, which includes high schools Summerville, Fort Dorchester and Ashley Ridge, does fund and operate a middle school football league but has several middle schools that feed students to more than one high school. Dubose Middle, for example, feeds straight to Summerville. But Gregg Middle, is split between Summerville and Ashley Ridge.
“We’ll go over to Gregg knowing we’re only reaching half of those kids,” Call said. “Ideally each high school would have two full feeders. You want to work with these kids as much as possible but you don’t want to start teaching them too much of our terminology and playbook if they’re going to end up at Fort or Ashley Ridge.”
Berkeley County should well understand Wando’s past situation. Berkeley County School District includes eight high schools but doesn’t run a middle school league. Middle school students zoned for Berkeley High School who want to play football can try out for the Stags B-Team in seventh grade. Sixth graders, and seventh graders who don’t make the B-Team, end up at the recreation department. Berkeley has still managed to be successful, though, winning the AAAA Division II state title in 2009 and reaching the AAAAA quarterfinals last fall. Philip Simmons, entering its second season of varsity play, invited its seventh and eighth graders to help form its junior varsity and hopes to have the numbers to create a B-team in two years. Sixth graders, and seventh and eighth graders who didn’t play for the Iron Horses’ junior varsity, played in recreation leagues, many in Mount Pleasant.
“We’re lucky to have a community with a recreation department that’s done such a great job,” said Wando B-Team head coach Kevin Shiver, who’s helped to bring the Warriors C-Team operational this spring. “I think we’re just stepping it up a little bit.”
Wando hopes to attract roughly 40 players to its inaugural C-Team. About 70 players showed up for spring practice that combined the B and C teams. The plan is to use the B-Team for mostly freshmen and a few advanced eighth graders. There is a possibility that the teams could be fluid, meaning players could be called up from the C-Team to the B-Team or the B-Team to the junior varsity as appropriate or necessary during the season, much in the same way junior varsity players are sometimes brought up to the varsity.
The varsity staff will heavily influence the C-Team coaches, who right now include a few Wando assistants, a few longtime local recreation coaches as well as former Warriors standouts Tyler Stasky and Cameron Rouse.
The scheme, terminology and playbooks will run congruent throughout the program, allowing the junior varsity and varsity coaches to save time on initial installation that often began from scratch in years past.
“The whole focus is to build the program from the ground up,” Shiver said. “We want to make sure they get the same attention as the other Wando teams. Formations will be the same. The play calls will be the same. We’ll adapt and adjust for our C-Team kids to be successful, just like we do for the B-Team.”
Charleston County’s C-Team league will operate similar to a varsity league. The school district will cover all costs, including equipment. Baptist Hill, James Island, Military Magnet, North Charleston, Stall, St. John’s, Wando and West Ashley are all expected to field teams. Lucy Beckham High School is scheduled to join once it opens in 2020. It’s a huge expansion in travel for a lot of players who wouldn’t see that sort of competition unless in an all-star setting.
Players will be outfitted in their high school’s uniforms. Games will be played in the high school stadiums on Wednesday nights. Players learn to break down and study film and will have their own HUDL highlight accounts online.
“The most important part is making it fun for the kids. Getting them involved in a safe atmosphere out here, teaching them to play football and building them through the process is the idea,” Shiver said. “We’re letting them see some competition around the Lowcountry they normally wouldn’t see.
“Our dream of this whole C-Team thing is that it would also possibly expand into Berkeley and Dorchester in the future and we’d play some kind of championship games against those schools.”
Wando and Charleston County aren’t simply catching up anymore, they’re progressing ahead with a C-Team program that allows the high schools far more control than most middle school feeder leagues.
Call is in favor of a C-Team idea at Summerville and throughout Dorchester County. He appreciates the middle school teams in his area having their own identity but would like the opportunity to have an even greater presence at that level and possibly, one day, have the kids compete outside of the district against a broader schedule throughout the Lowcountry. A lot of that would depend on the direct feeder schools though.
“If we had two middle schools directly feeding Summerville, then they’d be under the Green Wave umbrella and it’d be easier for us to have a C-Team. Same with Fort or Ashley Ridge. And that would benefit all of the kids directly, in academics and athletics,” Call said. “So, yeah, if we could do that and the other schools around Charleston and Berkeley County wanted to compete and have a schedule and championships, I’d be in favor of that. I like the idea.”
Wando’s staff understands Summerville’s hesitancy to offer too much of its play calling and resources to middle school teams that will send many of their players elsewhere. Cario, Laing and Moultrie are arranged to feed into Wando but the pipeline is challenged by an unusually high amount of alternative options available in the area, including private and charter schools. Noonan hopes turning players into Warriors earlier helps reestablish some semblance of pride in matriculating to Wando, the largest public school in the state.
“There are a lot of options and choices that have broken up this community of football,” Noonan said. “We look forward to getting things back under our umbrella by giving our kids an opportunity to be a Warrior at an earlier age.”
So although the younger players may enter the practice fields identifying with different middle schools this fall, thanks to the Wando C-Team, they’ll have the opportunity to walk off united as one in the fall.