Spring forward in 2019

Watauga football coach Ryan Habich puts the Pioneers through their first spring practice of the 2019 season.

BOONE — If things were normal, the Watauga football team would be spending this week preparing for spring practices, which were scheduled to begin May 11-22.

Watauga’s football team will do its best to cope with a new normal that limits what the Pioneers can do as a team over the rest of the school year and in the summer. Watauga head coach Ryan Habich had high hopes that the 2020 spring practices could help a young team mature and take some momentum into summer workouts.

That plan was squashed with the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus, which caused the cancellation of prep athletics for the rest of the school year by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

The Pioneers, who were 13-2 last season and reached the 3-AA Western Regional finals, must rebuild a team that returns just two starters on offense and two others on defense.

Habich said losing the spring practices means losing a chance to rebuild the core of the team, which won the 2019 Northwestern Conference championship, but lost 14 seniors from that squad.

“Before COVID-19 we had a lot of challenges,” Habich said. “We’re basically a JV-plus team. We had a good team last year and we did some major things. Not a lot of people in North Carolina realize that we only had 23 players on our varsity team last year.”

The losses offensively include two players who will play on college rosters in the fall. The Pioneers return wingback Sebastian Best and offensive lineman Grant Lawrence, but the Pioneers must replace quarterback Anderson Castle (Appalachian State) and wingback Jaiden Bond (Western Carolina) and four offensive linemen, who graduated last June.

Defensively, Watauga returns defensive end Orlando Leon and linebacker Jake Gragg, but must find a replacement for fullback and inside linebacker Jake Watson, who will play collegiately at Mars Hill.

Others returning have game experience, but Habich was hoping that the combination of the Pioneers’ “Blue Dawn” practices May 6-8 followed by spring practice would yield some leadership.

Habich said some players react by sticking to their workout schedules, and others don’t. Developing the discipline to stick to the workouts when the coaching staff is not present can be a difficult process.

“We’re extremely young and we were hoping to use the offseason and the preseason to develop our younger players,” Habich said. “To build a championship culture, you have to have high relationships with high accountability. Moving around all of the COVID-19, you’re trying to develop that the best you can, but it’s difficult in these times.”

Habich said the success the Pioneers have enjoyed in the recent past could be linked to the offseason workouts.

“We haven’t been just a show-up program in August,” Habich said. “We’ve done a lot in January and in July.”

Watauga’s next offseason workouts are scheduled to begin June 16 and would include weight training, football drills, speed drills and conditioning training. But the Pioneers also had to cancel a youth camp it holds and won’t be able to go to a team camp for 7-on-7 workouts at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

“We’re trying to prepare our team the best that we can,” Habich said.

The Pioneers’ 2020 regular season is slated to begin Aug. 28 at home against rival Ashe County.

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