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At Lucy Beckham, day one of high school football practice for Bengals' 'day one' guys

MOUNT PLEASANT — Walking from the parking lot to the practice field at Lucy Beckham High school, one could hear Bengals head coach Jamel Smith bellowing out orders and encouragement from a good distance away.

Smith exudes excitement and passion even off the field, but the opening of day of preseason practices for the 2022 season brought out even more intensity.

Friday marked the first practice for the first official varsity football season at Lucy Beckham. The school fielded a junior varsity team in its first two years of existence, starting play in 2020.

Last season, due to cancellations of games because of the COVID-19 virus, the Bengals were able to gain special permission to play three games against varsity competition, losing contests to Bamberg-Ehrhardt, Loris and Bishop England.

This fall, however, will be the first full varsity schedule with the first group of nearly two dozen seniors Smith brought together as sophomores nearly two years to the day.

“We call them our ‘day one’ guys’,” said Smith, a former All-American linebacker at Virginia Tech. “The last two years, today is what we have worked for. It will be sad to see these guys go, but we are so proud of everything they have meant to our program. We hope to send them out with a bang.”

Smith says putting in the system, the X’s and O’s, and teaching the fundamentals were the primary focus of the last two years. But building a solid culture was equally important.

“It was all about taking care of the little things, establishing the discipline and the character of our young men that has helped us get to today,” Smith said. “It’s exciting to see how we stack up this year. Last year, with those three varsity games that we were able to play, it showed us a lot in terms of where we needed to go. We had to get stronger and faster. We saw a lot and I think it truly helped our kids see what it was going to take.”

The Bengals will compete as a Class AAAA program this fall, taking on more established programs like May River, James Island and Hilton Head in Region 7-AAAA. Wins may be difficult to come by in year, one but success will be measured in more than wins and losses, says Smith.

“Our expectations are for our kids to go out and play as hard as they can play,” he said. “We’re not looking to go undefeated. If we could, that would be great. But this thing is all about establishing discipline, teaching great work ethic and getting these kids to play for each other. If we can do that, it’s a successful season.”

At Fort Dorchester in North Charleston, the area’s top program and a perennial state title contender, veteran coach Steve LaPrad stands near the middle of the field, observing various stations of work, offering words and occasionally blowing his whistle when needed.

LaPrad is beginning his 46th season as a high school coach, his 21st as the head man at Fort Dorchester.

“I am just as excited as I was in my first year,” said LaPrad, who led the program to a AAAA state title in 2015. “If it’s ever not exciting for me, it is time to get out. I love it. Still get a lot of enjoyment out of day one.”

High school athletics have changed dramatically since LaPrad started coaching. All sports have become year-round endeavors with the growth of off-season programs outside of the high schools. Getting his team all together at the same time on the first day of preseason practice is important to the coach.

“It’s a different world and sports in general have changed so much,” he said. “All the showcases and 7-on-7 stuff, and the college prospect camps, kids are scattered all summer. Kids are here and there and everywhere. Football has definitely caught up with basketball and baseball in terms of the summer stuff.

“That is the biggest thing about today. All the camps and showcases, the outside stuff, all that’s over. Today it’s about Fort Dorchester football. Getting them back in a routine, establishing the discipline and making them accountable. It’s good to get started. Good to have them here together.”

Area high school teams will begin scrimmages late next week to be followed by area jamborees. Week zero of the regular season is Aug. 19. Each of the last two seasons have been affected by the lingering COVID-19 virus. The hope is that the 2022 season will be the first “normal” regular season since 2019.

Lucy Beckham opens the season on Aug.19 against Lake Marion. Fort Dorchester will open on Aug. 26 against defending Class AAAA Lower State champion Beaufort.