KINGSPORT — Sullivan North coach Robbie Norris intentionally emulates the iconic Southwest Virginia football programs of years past.
Under his tutelage, the Golden Raiders have been hard-nosed, durable, resourceful and successful to a degree all out of proportion to the program’s size.
This year you can add another trait held in common: the threat of possible extinction from consolidation.
If the North Golden Raiders are destined to go the way of the Appalachia Bulldogs, the essential character of Norris’ program remains unchanged.
The Raiders always play like there is no tomorrow.
“If this is going to be our last year together, so be it. But we’re going to take it as far as we can,” said returning wingback Jacob Jasper, a junior who has rushed for nearly 1,700 yards over the past two seasons.
The Raiders could take it farther than many people expect.
With 19 of 22 starters gone — including playmakers Cory Rowe and Kairi Thompson — the misleading, if reasonable, assumption is that North lacks the necessary veterans to hang in the Three Rivers Conference with the likes of Elizabethton and new arrival Sullivan South.
Aside from Jasper, wingback Kody Goins, fullback Bryson Salyers and quarterback Nick Copas are the only names likely to ring a bell with a lot of people.
Nevertheless, the bulk of North’s returning roster still knows its way around a football field.
“These kids have experienced a lot of success, so they expect to be successful,” Norris said. “They expect to do well.”
The luxury of a junior varsity schedule means a lot of Norris’ kids get live game experience at Benny Compton Field before their first varsity snap. The players battling for starting positions this August have meaningful varsity reps on top of that.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Copas knows Rowe is a tough act to follow at QB, but he’s had a solid offseason, working on some wildcat and spread to complement North’s ground attack.
“Obviously Cory was a great player. To fill his shoes will be an honor. I’m just going to have fun doing it,” Copas said.
With Jasper and Goins as the wingbacks, Salyers and Brett Peters are splitting time at fullback. Junior Riley Eaton (5-9, 180) and senior Jonathan Green (6-2, 190) move in at tight end. Senior Seth Maxwell (6-0, 190) mans split end when called for.
Zach Duncan (5-9, 180) moves in at right tackle with fellow senior Dustin Cradic (6-0, 210) at left tackle. Seniors Matt Duncan (5-9, 180) and Tyler Arnold (5-8, 175) are at right and left guard, respectively. Massive Hunter Byington, a 6-2, 310-pound senior, anchors the front at center. Zach Rutherford (6-2, 200, So.), Tyler Graham (5-10, 195, Sr.) and Austin Murray (6-0, 240, Jr.) are all prone to rotate into the picture as backups.
Jasper, back at cornerback, is the only true returning starter on defense. But again, it’s not as green a unit as it seems.
Cradic and Austin Linton (6-1, 215, Jr.) have a ton of experience at tackle and nose guard, respectively. Zach Duncan moves in at the other tackle, with Peters at one defensive end and Matt Duncan at the other.
Probable starting linebackers include Salyers (Sam), Arnold (Mike) and Goins (Will). Copas is the likely fit at the other corner with Maxwell moving in at free safety.
The Cyclones and Rebels both bump up to the 4A bracket for the postseason. Both are a welcome challenge for the Raiders. Whatever happens during the regular season, North expects to have places to go, people to beat.
“I think we’re the smallest team in the league now, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Norris said.
“One thing I promise you: We’ll play hard and have a good time. That’s about where we stand.”