GASTON SENIORS. Pictured above, from left: Josh Campbell, Ethan Stone, Nick Lewis. (Chris McCarthy/Messenger)
By Chris McCarthy, Publisher/Editor
Whatever else is in store for the 2020 Gaston Bulldogs, first-year head coach Matt Harris is confident that at least one short-term goal will be realized.
“We’re going to learn how to play football hard, fast and physical,” he said. “We’re going to go out, and we’re going to hit every day. Until they prove to me that we’re going to be physical, we’re just going to keep on hitting.”
A combination of youth, inexperience and bad luck led to a winless record for Gaston in 2019. After putting six points on the scoreboard against Sand Rock in the season opener, the Bulldogs did not score again until Week 7.
Harris pointed to a lack of depth as the biggest difference he has seen at Gaston from his recent stint as an assistant coach at Sardis for the past six seasons.
“We’re having to make a lot of guys play both ways and go the whole night. One of the things they’ve done a really good job of is accepting the conditioning that we’re putting in and the requirement to be in shape well enough to be able to play four quarters.”
Harris noted that his team must learn on the fly, as only four players return who possess varsity game experience under their belts.
“We’re going to be young,” he said. “We’ve got three seniors and one junior, so it’s going to be a learning curve. We’re going to have to do a lot of growing as the season goes on, but we expect a lot out of our young guys.”
Top among the returning starters are seniors Josh Campbell and Ethan Stone. Campbell returns at quarterback and safety, while Stone is back at tight end and outside linebacker.
“I expect Josh and Ethan to be the example every day for what it means to be a Gaston Bulldog,” said Harris. “With a young team, we have to have guys who set the standard with how they go about their business on and off the field. The guys who haven’t been through the fire can see what that looks like, and those two guys have done a tremendous job with that so far.”
This will be Campbell’s fourth straight year starting under center.
“It makes things so much easier, in that you don’t have to wonder how he will handle things when the lights come,” said Harris. “You can focus on teaching him a new system and making sure he understands what we are trying to accomplish with the play calling. And having one as intelligent as Josh makes it even easier, because he learns and retains everything you say.”
Sophomore Aaron Wood and eigth grader Nemo Samples will help protect Campbell and his backfield mates.
“I expect Aaron and Nemo to be our anchors on both sides of the ball up front,” said Harris. “We’re repping a lot of guys at the skill positions, trying to create some depth while at the same time seeing who can do those jobs.”
Gaston’s Class 2A Region 6 competition includes Westbrook Christian, West End, Sand Rock, Southeastern, Locust Fork, Spring Garden, Cleveland and Do-noho.
“It’s going to be a tough region,” said Harris. “There are a lot of good teams when you look down that schedule. There’s not really one that you can look at and say, ‘That’s a win.’ They’re all going to be dogfights. Every one of them is going to be prepared, and I’m sure based on how things went last year, they’re probably circling their schedules (with a win over Gaston). But we’re going to be physical, and we’re going to be in shape. We’re going to give them the best game that we can give them, and hopefully that turns out in our favor.”
Considering the difficulty of the Bulldogs’ schedule, getting off to a good start is crucial for Harris’ young squad.
“If we can do that, it’s going to build confidence in the kids,” he said. “They’ve bought into everything we’ve said and done so far, but we all know that if you win that first couple [of games], it just reinforces everything you’ve preached to them and everything they’ve been through. If we get off to a good start, there’s no telling what we can do, because confidence has a whole lot to do with how well a team plays.
“We feel pretty good about this year. Our kids are growing up fast and learning our system and working harder than I ever thought we could expect them to.”
Emma Kirkemier contributed to this article