High school football: It’s here

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 3, 2023

By Mike London

MOUNT ULLA — Louis Kraft V was named as West Rowan’s head football coach at a challenging moment in world history.

Kraft got the nod to lead the Falcons in May 2020 when COVID held everything in a tight grip. Kraft was named as the leader of a program that had no idea at that point when it would be allowed by the NCHSAA to play another football game.

Storms come, but they also go. Bad times don’t last forever.

North Carolina high school football slowly got back on its feet with a shortened season in the spring of 2021, a calendar year that would contain two high school football seasons, so Kraft was both a rookie and a second-year head coach in a matter of months.

Normalcy returned for Kraft’s third season at the helm in the fall of 2022, and now 2023 high school football is here. Truth be told, everyone has been working out and lifting weights and getting ready for months, but the first official practices were conducted on Monday.

Things will move forward briskly now.

“We had a good day of practice Monday and another good one Tuesday,” Kraft said. “Our numbers are about right for us, I think. We’ve had 89 or 90 guys the first two days, and I think we’ll be at about 105 when we get to the season.”

The difference between 90 and 105 bodies can be attributed to a freshman class that is trickling in. Those youngsters aren’t driving yet, and not everyone has a ride to practice before school starts. That’s an annual thing coaches deal with.

“We’ll be rounding those freshmen up,” Kraft said. “But it may not be until we see them in the halls.”

Kraft would make Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny seem like pessimists.

Even with three head-coaching seasons under his belt, he’s still on the sunny side of 30, and he’s still as enthusiastic as he was when he played tight end for the Falcons a dozen years ago.

“Tough schedule again, with three challenging non-conference games, but I do believe we’re going to be good,” Kraft said. “A month or so into this season, I can see us being better at every spot on the field than we were a year ago. That’s exciting because we had a pretty good football team last year.”

West having a solid team is always a good bet and making the state playoffs is close to automatic. The Falcons managed to break even at 4-4 in the spring 2021 season, and they’ve followed that up with 7-4 and 9-3. West hasn’t had a losing season since 1998. That’s a 25-year run the program and the community is justifiably proud of.

While conference championship banners have proven elusive during the past decade, West is almost always a factor in a league race and is 14-3 in conference games under Kraft. West has finished runner-up in conference races three seasons in a row, losing three showdown games for titles — with Statesville, with Concord, and then with Northwest Cabarrus last fall.

“Northwest emerged last season, and they’ll be tough again, and now a very talented Jay M. Robinson program has been added to the South Piedmont Conference, so our league gets quite a bit better,” Kraft said. “Robinson has a D-I kid on the defensive line.”

That Robinson kid is 6-foot-6, 310-pound D’Nas White, who owns a stack of SEC and ACC offers. A guy like that can change any league in a hurry.

Kraft doesn’t have anyone quite like White, but he does have a sophomore he believes will be a player of the year candidate for the next three seasons.

Evan Kennedy was a dynamic varsity sophomore in 2022 until he was sidelined in late October by a growth plate issue that required surgery.

Kennedy amassed 221 receiving yards against Davie and he was a game-breaker against North Rowan with a kickoff return touchdown, 154 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns.

“He’s good to go now and he looks great,” Kraft said. “He’s added 15 pounds from last season to about 195, he’s explosive, and he’s going to be a problem for our opponents. Running back, outside receiver, inside receiver, you’ll see him line up a lot of different places, and we’ll try to get the ball to him.”

Lucas Graham graduated, so the guy throwing the ball to Kennedy will be sophomore Brant Graham, who started all the jayvee games last year and got his feet wet in a few varsity games. Graham is an athletic, three-sport guy who made an impact in varsity baseball and basketball as a freshman.

“We’ve got utmost confidence in what Brant is going to be able to do for us for three years,” Kraft said. “He already can make every throw there is and he likes to throw it down the field. He’s got a great arm. It’s just a matter of getting the reps and the experience for him to excel.”

A new name to know on the West defense is Cam Martin, a linebacker in the Class of 2025. He transferred from Mooresville.

“He’s got some West Rowan in his blood,” Kraft said. “His father played for the Falcons.”

Things will get exciting for the Falcons right away because they’ll scrimmage against Salisbury (8 p.m.) in the Rowan Jamboree hosted by Carson on Aug. 11. It’s the only time the Hornets and Falcons will oppose each other this year.

“As a football coach, I’d love for our guys to play Salisbury and North Rowan every year, but it won’t happen this year,” Kraft said. “The positive is that it makes our scrimmage with Salisbury in the Jamboree really exciting for players, coaches and fans.”

West will play a schedule that will have a meaningful game every week, including that scrimmage with Salisbury.

Davie and Mooresville are non-conference staples on West’s schedule. They are 4A schools that are neighbors and have big fan bases.

Kraft expects Mooresville’s defense to be stout, and he expects Davie’s offense to make it a track meet with the Falcons.

West also has plenty of history, and not much good history, with A.L. Brown, the non-conference opponent that West will battle on opening night on Aug. 18.

There was some confusion earlier over where that marquee game would be staged, but it will be played on the turf in Kannapolis and will feature the debut of new Wonders head coach Justin Hardin.

Hardin has built a coaching staff that includes ties to the championship days, men such as Todd Hagler and Jeremy Ryan.

“That should be a great game to start the season,” Kraft said. “Everyone knows we’re 1-17 against Kannapolis. That’s a monkey we’d like to get off our back.”

Teams put on the pads for the first time on the third practice day (Wednesday), although no one was allowed to go full-bore yet.

On the sixth practice day, athletes will get to engage in serious contact for the first time.

“The energy has been good so far,” Kraft said. “But once you get the pads on, it picks up a whole lot more.”

Also getting cranked up are the rest of the sports in the NCHSAA fall lineup — volleyball, girls golf, boys soccer, girls tennis and boys and girls cross country. The Pre-County Meet for cross country is set for Aug. 16 at Dan Nicholas Park.