After Lee Academy gave up a 14-point lead in the 2019 Class 4A state semifinals, the Colts have had their eye on getting back there and possibly further, but they will have to do it in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lee (7-4, 2-0 MAIS Region 1-4A in 2019) lost 16-14 at Riverfield Academy in Rayville, La., in the semifinals and are also coming off of a district championship.
There are social distancing policies in place, but Lee Academy will be playing all of its scheduled football games and is using the semifinals loss as motivation.
“You just have to remind them what it took for us to get there, all the hard work it took for us to get there,” said fourth-year head coach Rick Johnston. “Once you get there, you’ve got to remind them how bad it hurt after that game losing that game. You can use that to motivate. It’s not easy to get to the place we got last year. Nothing’s given to you and you have to have the ball bounce the right way at certain times. But you’re going to have to make your breaks. That’s some of the things we’ve talked about.”
The Colts defeated North Delta both in the 2019 regular season and playoffs. They also beat Kirk Academy in the regular season.
“We know that people will probably be giving us their best shot now that we did have a good year last year,” Johnston said. “But we can’t rest on last year. We’ve got to move forward. This year is a new year and we have a lot of good players that are gone, moved on to college. They did a really good job for us, so we’ve got some holes to fill. This is our seniors’ team now and they’ve got to step up to the challenge. We had great senior leadership last year that helped us tremendously.
“It was a big part of our success. We’re challenging our seniors of this year to bring the same thing to the table. We’re waiting for somebody to step forward or more than one person, somebodies to step forward and be those leaders we need.”
Lee has more than 30 players on the 2020 roster, which is approximately 10 more than usual. The entire coaching staff is returning.
Johnston is looking to fill holes on offense and defense and will use the film from the North Delta jamboree Friday to evaluate younger athletes.
“We’re so on tonight playing those younger kids so we can get film on them, we can grade them, we can see and show them the good things and bad things,” Johnston said. “Hopefully, we can get them to grow up real fast.”
So far, Johnston said the team’s work ethic has been good.
Senior Luke Crumpton is the starting quarterback, while senior Russell Cook and sophomore Bryan Ray are the backups. Senior Barrett Mitchell and sophomore Sam Stonestreet are fullbacks; and senior Nickos Nolan, sophomore James Chicorelli and senior Graydon Gullick are tailbacks.
“When we get our gun package in throwing the football, we’ll be rotating in about eight guys at receiver,” Johnston said.
Offensive linemen include senior Jackson Spinks, junior center Gage Russell, sophomore Luke Agostinelli, senior guards Andrew Williamson and Tripp Dulaney, senior Chris Butler, sophomore Jackson Avery, sophomore Jack Mohead, sophomore Jordan Wong, sophomore Jack Sherard, sophomore Rylan Ferracci and sophomore Layne Hays.
The plan is to run first and pass second on offense.
“It depends on what the defense gives us,” Johnston said. “We’re not afraid to throw it. Luke’s got a really arm. So does Bryan. We’ve got some playmakers out there on the outside.”
Receivers include senior Gaines Barksdale, Gullick, Nolan, sophomore Aiden Byrd, sophomore Watkins Fyfe, sophomore Walt Bell and Chicorelli.
The defense will be based out of a four-man front, but the Colts can play a five, six or seven-man front.
Defensive ends are Williamson and senior Chase Youngblood, defensive tackles are junior Vance Johnson and senior Chris Butler, inside linebackers are Dulaney and Stonestreet, outside linebackers are Nolan and Mitchell, cornerbacks are Barksdale and Byrd, and Gullick is at safety.
Johnston said he should be able to substitute his defense for a whole other 11 players. With the increased depth on the roster, not many athletes will go two ways.
“Hopefully, it’s just a select few,” Johnston said. “Hopefully, it’s just less than a handful where we had seven, eight, sometimes nine last year going both ways. Hopefully, we can keep it four or less.”
Senior Michael Basha kicker and sophomore Gage Coats are the kickers. A punter and returners have not been selected.
The big games for Johnston are the two district games.
“Those are the ones that get you a home playoff game,” he said. “Those are the ones that count. One of them is on the road and one of them is here.”
Neither district game should be easy.
“Kirk’s going to be much improved,” Johnston said. “They had a really good freshman class two years ago. Those kids are now juniors. It’s not going to be easy.
“North Delta’s loaded with talent. They’ve got their quarterback and their top offensive playmaker back along with a lot of their offensive line. North Delta’s the team to beat. They’ve got a really good quarterback that’s an athlete, a run/pass threat.”
Film will be extra important to help athletes get recruited to colleges in 2020 with the social distancing going on.
“Film’s a big thing anyway,” Johnston said. “It’s blown up in the last five, six years with all the highlight packages you can put together and send to coaches. It will definitely be a bigger part of this year, if that’s possible with getting it to various coaches.”
Even though there is a COVID-19 pandemic, Johnston said it was important for the Colts to play their season.
“I think it’s a huge deal,” he said. “We’re trying to get back to as normal as possible. Last spring was a really hard pill to swallow. I think it really cost us a legitimate shot at a state championship in boys track, a district championship in boys track. The girls were going to be real competitive, too, along with our baseball team. I really thought we had a shot to win the district, too. When that’s taken away, it’s a really pill to swallow. We’re in unchartered waters here. We’re trying to reinvent everything.
“Things change from day to day. It’s really, really made our job harder. You’ve got to keep these kids motivated. There’s so much uncertainty. We’re trying to keep things as safe as we can around here, but as back to normal as we can, too. That’s something that is very hard to balance right now, but we’re doing the best we can do.”
While the MAIS could step in and cause the season to be canceled or Lee’s opponents could decide not to play, Johnston will continue to everything in his power to make sure the Colts have football in 2020.
“Right now, we’re pressing on,” Johnston said.” We’re going to try to press through this, but at the same token, keep our kids as safe as we can. We’ve done different things with hydrating them.”
In an effort to keep athletes safe, Johnston said the junior high and high school teams are kept separate, athletes are limited in the amount of time they are around each other, practice time was cut and the Colts limit their time on opposing teams’ campuses. They leave Lee 30 minutes later than usual and stretch right away at games. They leave the field they are playing on immediately following the game.
At games Lee is hosting, there will be a 25 percent capacity for the stands and fans cannot get in until 20 minutes prior to the game. There is a possibility games will be live streamed.
Johnston said he will evaluate how things went in the North Delta jamboree last week and the junior high jamboree at Lee this coming Thursday to see if any social distancing adjustments need to be made.
“We’re going to be looking at and monitoring the way things are going,” Johnston said. “If there’s any changes to the way North Delta did things tonight that we can do next week to make it even better, then we’re certainly going to take a look at that.”
Johnston said having sports benefits the community.
“Our community needs football and sports total,” he said. “I just think that everybody’s anxious to see some sporting events at the high school level. Hopefully, Good Lord willing, that’s going to happen.”