The football teams at Bruton and Grafton high schools open their seasons this week in the same boat — rebuilding with new head coaches.
That might sound curious considering Grafton went 9-3 last year, upset Smithfield in the playoffs and nearly upset then-unbeaten Lafayette in the second round.
Undermanned and injury-plagued Bruton, by contrast, went 0-10 and was outscored 435-56.
But the offseason was kinder to Bruton. The Panthers welcomed new coach Tim Smith in May and have since enjoyed increased participation numbers and improved performance evident in two preseason scrimmages.
The Panthers head to King William for their opener at 7 p.m. Thursday with confidence.
“The atmosphere is great and we’re all ready to play and start the season right,” senior running back Darian Brooks said. “We have a brand-new program, a new (spread) offense and a new defense, and I feel we’re going to do great.”
Grafton opens its season Friday at Churchland following an offseason of uncertainty. Head coach Matt McLeod resigned for personal reasons in January, and then Paul White, head coach at the small-college level Newport News Apprentice School, accepted the job as the Clippers’ head coach in June.
But White changed his mind in early July and announced this week that he has returned to Mathews High as athletic director. Enter Ryan Wenner, who succeeded White as Mathews’ football coach from 2013-15, and became Grafton’s head coach July 31 — the first official day of practice.
That has left Wenner little time to prepare a team that was already in rebuilding mode after losing nearly a dozen key seniors from the 2016 team. Nevertheless, the Clippers might be jelling in the nick of time.
“We obviously started off slow trying to find a new coach after Coach White had to resign,” two-way lineman A.J. Garcia said. “I think we’re starting to get some momentum. Coach Wenner is all about high intensity, and that’s good for our team. He likes getting snaps in all throughout practice, making us work hard, and he’s all about conditioning so we can go all four quarters.”
While many of the most talented players from the 2016 team graduated, Wenner did not inherit a bare cupboard. For instance, the offensive line includes returning starters in Garcia, Bryce Beatty, Tanner Jenkins and Jarred Midkiff, while newcomer Miles Posey (6-foot-4, 240 pounds) adds size.
Garcia, Kalani McLean and crunching tackler Reuben Williams give the Clippers one of the Bay Rivers District’s top linebacking corps. And in Demetrius Moore, who passed for 214 yards in the playoff upset of Smithfield, the Clippers have one of the Bay Rivers’ top dual threats.
The big weakness for the Clippers is going to be depth. With slightly more than 35 players suiting up, Grafton will not have a junior varsity for the first time in the school’s 21-year history.
“I think the quality is great,” Wenner said. “I’m happy with the talent of the starting-unit guys. But we don’t have the numbers I’d love to see. We haven’t had the numbers or the time. It would’ve been better if I’d been here since the spring to feel things out.”
Bruton, with 40 players, has only a few more than Grafton but is much happier about it, considering the respective size of the schools. The Virginia High School League lists Grafton with 1,187 students and Bruton with 607.
Because the Panthers have so many more than the usual 30 players in the program, Smith will field a JV team at the school for the first time in many years.
“I’m really excited about that because it will go a long way in developing players faster,” he said. “It will give them meaningful minutes, and they won’t just be going against guys (in practice) who are beyond their skill level.
“There’s a saying: ‘If you build a good program, they’ll come,’ ” Smith said of increasing player participation and fan interest. “We’re building a solid foundation, and I know Bruton football will be back sooner rather than later.”
O’Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963 and @MartyO’BrienDP