Quite a bit has changed in French Camp Academy coach Nathan Wright’s nine years at the helm, but one thing sticks out for him.
“In a sense, a lot of things have changed at French Camp,” Wright said. “One of the things that has hurt us in the past is we are such a changing school. Because our elementary is public and the high school is private, we used to lose a lot of kids, but now a lot more of those kids are staying over.”
Wright said another thing the Panthers noticed was that because of the nature and mission of French Camp, many of their athletes were not from the community so they did not have the loyalty and pride many other athletes have about playing somewhere they grew up.
All of that is starting to change for the Panthers and it is those guys that have decided to stay at French Camp that are making a tremendous difference in the football team. For Wright, that means getting to build relationships with the athletes and to see camaraderie build within the team itself, things that have not been commonplace in the past.
“We got a great group of kids who have been around for a little while,” Wright said. “They grew up playing together and are French Camp through and through. To add to that, we have several district kids who have been here since they were small, so that combination has made a huge difference because those kids are developed.”
Inside that core group of players are a handful of seniors that have been playing together from junior high all the way up. Something that is very foreign to the Panther coach who knows “it isn’t often that you get to coach a kid from 7th all the way up” and he is “blessed to have that this year.”
Those seniors bring leadership to the table and Wright is quick to credit them with guiding the team both on and off the field.
“Overall, we just have some great leadership,” Wright said. “Our seniors work real hard and they are not guys that yell and scream. They just kind of lead by example on the field and in the classroom. They really are just great leaders.”
Looking at those senior athletes individually, it is clear why French Camp secured a first-place finish in its division with a perfect 7-0 record.
Offensively, the Panthers are led by fullback Jaylon Clemons, center Andrew Stevens and tight end Ben Hosket.
“Jaylon is a solid player," Wright said. "He has just been a solid performer throughout. He brings a big body back there and he’s physical. Even if nobody blocks, he makes plays, then we have Andrew who has had maybe one bad snap all year. It all starts with him. He knows what he is doing and then you throw in Ben our tight end. He’s tough and he is called on to do a lot of stuff. We run behind him a lot and then we need to throw to him some. Offensively, these guys have done a great job for us.”
The defensive side of the ball is more of a team effort for the Panthers, but Wright does point to Dylan Dickey who is a senior that has played well all season at outside linebacker and has really made some big stops for the team.
Wright will need every one of his players to step up and give it their all tonight as the Panthers take on St. Joseph Catholic School in postseason action. French Camp does have some knowledge of the Fighting Irish as the two met in an earlier game that saw the Panthers win 30-0, but that does not mean Wright and his team are relaxed.
“Anytime you have to beat the same team twice in one year is tough, so that is our biggest threat,” Wright said. “We have to go back and look at the last game. We both have that to study and both of us will be changing some things. We have to go there and they are going to be hungry after we beat them 30-0 last time, but we are ready and are looking forward to the challenge.”
When looking closely at the Fighting Irish, Wright says his team has to be able to keep up with St. Joe’s changing offense.
“They have a really big quarterback with a great arm,” Wright said. “He is not just light and fast, but he is physical up front. They have good receivers and are a lot bigger than we are. They are unique in that they run some good spread stuff and then they run five wide and run over you. We have to have the personnel to match both. We have to spread with them and we have to be able to power with them. That is going to be a tremendous threat.”
Wright knows that his guys are ready for tonight. That they have a “great team effort and have really gelled together.” He says they understand “every man has to do his job and we are only as good as our weakest man,” so he feels they are ready for whatever comes their way today.
Looking ahead to the future, Wright says he is not ready for the season to end and is looking forward to continuing this ride and building relationships with his athletes.
“It has been a fun ride and I hope we can keep riding,” Wright said. “I am not ready to quit. The kids are fun to be around. They enjoy practice and work hard. Overall, it is just a lot of fun.”
French Camp will see if the ride continues when they kick off at 7 p.m. in Greenville.