It can be difficult for a football program mired in a rebuild to generate momentum and buy-in from its players, particularly in high school.
That’s the challenge facing Tuscarora and coach Curtiss Belcher, who began overhauling the Titans in the shortened 2020-21 campaign before picking up one win with a depleted roster last year.
So far in 2022, Tuscarora’s prospects are looking a bit better.
The squad is up to 36 varsity athletes after bottoming out with just 22 last season, recruitment spurred almost entirely by players talking up the team in the school hallways.
“Everyone in the building has been recruiting,” senior defensive lineman Owen Stup said. “We’ve got [nearly] two times as many people as last year, so I think we’ve all done a good job.”
It’s one of the ways the team has taken on a more involved role in building up the program. That can also be seen in how they hold each other accountable, setting up their own guidelines, rules and disciplinary system.
“For instance, we talk about communication. If they don’t communicate if they’re going to be late or there’s an issue, they make them run a gasser [sprint] before practice,” Belcher said. “They put these in place. They were more harsh than we [coaches] even put in place. So they want to be accountable, because they know accountability means they’ll be better.”
While the Titans are establishing a culture off the field, they are hoping the full year under Belcher’s tutelage will result in steps forward on the field.
That starts under center, where Tuscarora rotated through four quarterbacks last season. It was difficult for the offense to develop the continuity and chemistry needed to pose a threat.
That’s changing this season, as Cole Gormont, one of those four starters last year, will have the reins to himself.
“He’s a very, very bright quarterback,” Belcher said. “He’s going to be a nice piece for us, and he’s been a very good leader in terms of teaching the team.”
It stabilizes a developing squad, one still raw in its talent and ability. But with that first year under their belt, Gormont and his playmakers stand to get a bit more creative.
The Titans, who mostly ran an option game last season, will incorporate more of a vertical attack as Gormont continues to develop. The senior has a capable arm, and though he’s still ironing out his mid- and long-range accuracy, having that threat opens up the playbook a bit more.
“At the end of last year, we started showing a bit of upside with the offense,” Gormont said. “We’re more of a spread team.”
He added that he hopes to eclipse 1,000 passing yards this year, something that could be helped by having seven additional returning starters on offense.
“You still need to be able to run the football, but he’s given us a very good pass option, in dropbacks, rollouts and boots,” Belcher said.
But if the offense stands to take a step forward, the defense will need to do the same.
Seven players return on that side of the ball, led by Stup as the anchor on the growing defensive line. Junior John Enoch and senior Dreux Tucker helm the linebacker corps.
Tucker — who is also Tuscarora’s lead running back — said he feels that, with at least a year under their belt, the defense is poised to create a bit more havoc.
“At least two turnovers every game. I honestly feel like we can do that,” he said.
Their success also hinges on being able to maintain a high intensity throughout whole games. It was a challenge last year, but the Titans seem to have taken steps in the right direction during the first couple weeks of practice.
“We’ve always had enough energy coming into the game, but we need to finish games with more energy,” Stup said. “With the amount of people that we have and the leaders we have on this team, I think we’ve all done a good job of keeping the energy up.”
Nonetheless, it will be a challenge for a developing Tuscarora team going up against some of the area’s powers in Class 3A and 4A. A rebuild takes time, and the Titans are deep in one.
But there are tangible signs of progress, starting with the stark increase in varsity players.
“Even with the numbers we have now, it can definitely be better,” senior lineman Eyad Haney Bedas said. “But the people that are here are really dedicated to play and have been in the weight room all summer, and I think we’ve got a pretty good group of people here.”
Region: Class 4A-3A West. Postseason Appearances: 4. State championships: 0. Coach and record with team: Curtiss Belcher, third season, 2-13. 2021 record: 1-9. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
2021 review: The Titans labored throughout much of the season, with their lone win coming Oct. 15 against Thomas Johnson. That was a 27-21 overtime slugfest which the Titans won on quarterback Andrew Cramer’s touchdown run. He had previously forced the fumble that led to the winning score, as Cramer was one of many two-way players for Tuscarora. As quarterback, he passed for 409 yards and six touchdowns, while running for 340 yards and an additional score. Running back Marshall Ayivon led the way on the ground with 512 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The Titans reached the playoffs for the first time since 2016, where they were beat by Urbana 49-14 in the first round.
Why doesn't FNP put player names with their photos? Just get the coach to give you a list of names with player numbers.
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