For the New Hanover High School football team and new Head Coach Earl Smith, the focus heading into the 2015 season is keeping the Wildcats at the forefront of the split 3A/4A Mideastern Conference.
Smith rejoins New Hanover after spending the 2001-2002 seasons in Wilmington and returns to the gridiron for the first time since retiring from the game in 2008. He was officially introduced as the program’s new leader in mid-February.
“It’s been six years since I coached so I’ve been a little rusty the first few days, but didn’t miss a lick coming back to this beautiful place, the field house and the tradition,” said Smith. “We’ve had a great summer, starting with our spring practice. We have 27 seniors and 25 of them were 100 percent through the summer, so the commitment is there.”
The veteran coach replaces Kevin Motsinger, who stepped down earlier this year after nine seasons. While taking over the Wildcats from the boisterous Motsinger, it’s a different set of circumstances that helped guide him to accepting the position. Smith is touted as someone who put New Hanover football back in the right direction after helping guide the storied program to its first playoff appearance in nearly a decade. Under Motsinger, the Wildcats advanced to the playoffs in each of his nine seasons and took the 2009 team to the East Regional Final.
“The mindset has been one of winning tradition, toughness, hardwork and that’s there,” Smith said. “My biggest thing is kind of not to mess it up. There were some areas of weakness on defense and we’re working on those.”
After his time in the Port City, Smith spent five years as head coach of Wake Forest-Rolesville, where he led the Cougars to three straight conference titles and retired after the 2008 season. Prior to his two years at New Hanover, he spent 18 seasons at Raleigh-Millbrook.
The Wildcats have a solid core of players returning to the sidelines and are poised to make some noise inside conference. Led by starting quarterback Burke Estes and University of Georgia commit Garrett Walston, the pieces are in place for this to be a special season for New Hanover.
Most of the coaching staff under Motsinger is back for the year, including veteran offensive coordinator Darryl Raynor. Under the Raynor offense and Davidson College freshman baseball player Ward Coleman, the Wildcats threw for over 2,600 yards last season, while chewing up more than 2,100 yards on the ground.
“Offensively we’re in great shape,” said Smith. “Our whole offensive line is coming back, we’ve got Garrett [Walston] at tight end, Burke [Estes] has been working hard at quarterback, a great group of receivers and running backs. Defensively, I worked this summer with them myself on the mental side and positioning, but we’ve got a new defensive coordinator and he’s been here for about three weeks so we’re on the same page.”
New Hanover opens the season with two straight road games, including a date with Socastee (South Carolina) as part of the annual Carolinas Kickoff Clash in Myrtle Beach on August 28. They will also welcome 4A powerhouse Scotland County to Legion Stadium on September 18 before opening conference play two weeks later.
“No matter where I’ve been we always try to schedule tough non-conference games,” said Smith. “It’ll be a good measuring stick for us leading up to conference and I think once we get into next week, we’re ready to hit somebody.”
New Hanover 2015 schedule
Friday, August 21 @ Hoke County
Friday, August 28 @ Socastee (Myrtle Beach)
Friday, September 4 vs. Havelock
Friday, September 11 vs. Scotland
Friday, September 18 @ Purnell Swett
Friday, October 2 vs. Hoggard
Friday, October 9 @ Laney
Friday, October 16 vs. West Brunswick
Friday, October 23 @ Ashley
Friday, October 30 vs. Topsail
Friday, November 6 @ South Brunswick