High school football is ‘last sacred cow,’ coaches say

Fort Dorchester football coach Steve LaPrad says he’s worried about the future of high school athletics in the face of AAU clubs and travel leagues. (Wade Spees/Staff)

High school football is “the last sacred cow,” coach Steve LaPrad of defending state champion Fort Dorchester told coaches at the S.C. Athletic Coaches Association’s annual clinic on Tuesday.

“We don’t want AAU football to be what they play in the future,” LaPrad told coaches at the Charleston Area Convention Center. “This 7-on-7 all-star stuff? It’s tough. Some of these academies that pop up? That scares me.”

LaPrad’s message: He wants high schools to remain the main conduit for football-playing teenagers, and not cede ground to AAU clubs or travel leagues in the way that high school basketball and baseball have in recent years.

“I’m an athletic director, and at our school we have some really good athletes in lots of sports,” LaPrad said in an interview after his talk. “And I see that none of the college coaches come to baseball or basketball games, or to wrestling matches, the way they do to high school football games. These kids in other sports get their scholarships from outside the high school, the travel ball and AAU stuff.

“And I just feel like high school coaches, they are the ones concerned with a kid’s grades and their families, and I don’t know that outside coaches always are. I just worry, down the line, what will happen with high school sports.”

Other coaches agreed that the rise of AAU and 7-on-7 summer teams can be seen as competition for high school football.

“All the stuff kids are involved in, they get pulled in so many different directions,” said Ashley Ridge coach Kenny Walker. “I believe in multi-sport athletes; I did three in high school and two in college. But a lot of kids get told they have to specialize in one thing, and at this age, they need to be involved in more than one thing.”

Stratford coach Joe Marion said parents need to be aware of what their kids are getting involved in.

“Parents need to be careful,” he said. “Are those guys out there running that stuff, do they really want to help the kid? Or are they out there to make money? There’s a difference. Are they teaching what we try to teach in high school football — character, hard work, punctuality, respect for others? Or are they just out there building dreams in their heads that some will not accomplish, just to get money from them?

“I’ve been involved in coaching a long time, and a lot of them are like that. Not all of them, but a lot of them.”

Scholarships aside, the connections made in high school sports can’t be easily replaced, Marion said.

“Playing alongside people you go to school with, it’s a little more personal,” he said. “A lot of these kids only have single parents, and a lot of times that single parent needs help. That’s where a relationship with a coach can help a kid pull through.”

It’s an issue high school coaches need to pay attention to, LaPrad said.

“Football really hasn’t had to deal with it yet like they have in other sports,” Ashley Ridge’s Walker said. “But it seems like it’s getting more and more involved, and something you want to keep your eye on.”

• Fort Dorchester, fresh off a 15-0 record and state title last year, will open its season Aug. 20 at the Erk Russell Classic at Georgia Southern in Statesboro, Ga. The Patriots will take on Georgia high school power Sandy Creek.

“I’m kind of ready for us to make that next step in our schedule, like Goose Creek did and Summerville has done,” LaPrad said. “See how we can do against a team from another region of the country. It will be good for us, good for North Charleston. They think the game will be on TV on ESPN or Fox, and it’s not that far away.

“Sandy Creek has won some state titles, they’ve had lots of NFL players, a good, traditional program. They were looking for a high caliber team to go against them, and we are lucky enough that they thought we could do that.”

• The S.C. High School League will debut its new five-classification system for 2016-18 this fall. Ashley Ridge, Fort Dorchester, Goose Creek, James Island, Stratford, Summerville, Wando and West Ashley will be grouped in an eight-team Region 7-AAAAA, the largest Class AAAAA region in the state.

“I like it.” Ashley Ridge’s Walker said. “It’s very competitive and I think it will be one of the strongest regions in the state, top to bottom. It helps with scheduling in that we don’t have to find too many other teams.” Ashley Ridge will face AAAA Cane Bay, AAAAA Boiling Springs and AAAA Colleton County in non-region games, Walker said.

Stratford’s Marion said some schools have undergone attendance changes since the new classifications were drawn up.

“They used the enrollment from two springs ago, and some schools have grown since then,” he said. “If you are at the bottom of the AAAAA level like we are, we’ve lost some students and we’re down to around 1,800. Some schools are up around 200 students from two years ago, so it’s changed.

“But I like it and have always been a proponent of it. We were giving out seven championships for football in such a small state, and I was never a fan of that.”

The Lowcountry’s AAAA region is 8-AAAA with Beaufort, Berkeley, Cane Bay, Colleton County, Hilton Head Island and Stall. Region 7-AAA includes Bishop England, Hanahan, Lake Marion, Manning and Timberland. Region 6-AA has Academic Magnet, Burke, Garrett, North Charleston, Whale Branch and Woodland. Region 4-A is Baptist Hill, Charleston Charter, Lincoln, Military Magnet and St. John’s for football.

The S.C. High School League has moved to a five-classification system for 2016-18. Here’s how Lowcountry regions shape up for football this year:

Region 7-AAAAA: Ashley Ridge, Fort Dorchester, Goose Creek, James Island, Stratford, Summerville, Wando, West Ashley

Region 8-AAAA: Beaufort, Berkeley, Cane Bay, Colleton County, Hilton Head Island, Stall

Region 7-AAA: Bishop England, Hanahan, Lake Marion, Manning, Timberland

Region 6-AA: Academic Magnet, Burke, Garrett, North Charleston, Whale Branch, Woodland

Region 4-A: Baptist Hill, Charleston Charter, Lincoln, Military Magnet, St. John’s