South Charlotte

Football preview: Country Day coping with senior exodus

It's been nine months since Charlotte Country Day raised the championship trophy on its home field.

A lot has changed since then for the winners of the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association Division I title.

After the 45-17 win against rival Charlotte Latin in the title game, Country Day lost 11 players to graduation. That might not sound like much, but the 11 included the starting quarterback, running back and all but one starting wide receiver.

A new heat-acclimation policy for private-school teams has limited the amount of practice the Buccaneers have had this summer, and their scrimmage at Nations Ford High School on Aug. 13 was rained out.

"We're just a little bit behind," said head coach Bob Witman, entering his 22nd year leading Country Day. "There's still a lot of question marks. We're trying to get a look at these kids to see who's going to fill the spots of the kids we graduated last year."

One question that seems to be answered is at quarterback. Junior Michael Radford (6-foot-2, 175 pounds) will start this year after the graduation of two-year starter Morgan Roberts, now at Clemson.

Roberts was a dual-threat last year, rushing for 706 yards and 14 touchdowns and passing for 1,968 yards and 22 touchdowns.

Radford also proved at times last year that he can tuck the ball and run, getting 19 carries for 62 yards and two touchdowns.

"Mike Radford's a great athlete. He's got a strong arm, he just needs experience, and missing that scrimmage is going to hurt," said Witman.

Three players are competing to replace running back Thomas Passenant, who rushed for 1,021 yards and 14 touchdowns. Seniors Tyler Byrd (5-foot-10, 170) and Will Roberts (5-foot-10, 165) were the backups last year, and sophomore Michael Shields (5-foot-11, 175) also saw time in the backfield.

The lone returning starter at wide receiver is senior Bryan Erb. He, with juniors Jimmy Kleitches, Royce Turnbull and Tripp Mulligan, will try to make up for the graduation of all-state wide-out Wake Hamilton and receivers Lee Harrison and Brandon Santiago.

With the seniors gone, Witman isn't sure this year's offense will have the same explosiveness and quickness.

"We don't have the team speed we had last year, so that's a little bit of a concern because I don't see that changing a whole lot," he said.

The line is the most experienced part of the offense, with three returning starters, but it lost an important piece in all-state right guard Ward Showalter. Senior tackles Brian Duncan (6-foot-5, 225) and Marcel Souffrant (6-foot-2, 230) return with senior guard James Howe.

Many of those names will be on the defensive line this year, led by Howe (6-foot-1, 220 pounds) returning as an all-state defensive end. Duncan will fill the other end spot, and senior Martin Comer (5-foot-8, 195) will play tackle.

The only returning linebacker for the Bucs is junior Robert Engel (5-foot-7, 170), who will be joined by juniors Jack Hamrick and Pete Showalter. The secondary is more experienced, with Erb and Mulligan playing safety and senior Mac Clark and junior Scott Phillips at corner.

After winning the school's first football championship since 2004, Witman knows there's pressure to repeat.

"There's high expectations, like there should be," he said. "I think the kids realize that there's a lot of pressure on them to perform this year. There's high expectations, but we've got a lot of work to do. We're behind."

Luckily for the Bucs, they don't play any conference opponents until the last three games of the season, giving them plenty of time to get in position for the playoffs.

But there is one nonconference game every player and coach is thinking about: the Cook Cup game against Charlotte Catholic on Sept. 2.

"Every year, there's two goals the kids have had for the last umpteen years. Number one, win the Cook Cup, beating Catholic; and number two, win a state championship," said Witman. "That's obviously always going to be our goal. That is not out of the question to do that, and I think it's going to be an uphill struggle. If we can stay healthy and really execute like we're able to, I think we'll have a shot at it."