Friday was the only preseason scrimmage for Western North Carolina’s only defending state football champion.
But Murphy coach David Gentry has seen enough of them over the years. So he knows that the 90 minutes of simulated action at Erwin’s Kerr Stadium was typical.
“We found some people who can play, and we probably found some who can’t,” Gentry joked.
With a home opener against Darlington (Ga.) less than a week away, one bit of guesswork isn’t necessary – the Bulldogs have someone who can coach.
Gentry, 68, has been at the Cherokee County school since 1983.
And as the saying goes, from Murphy to Manteo, there is no one currently in North Carolina high school football with more career victories (346). Gentry became the state’s winningest active coach when Charlotte Catholic’s Jim Oddo (358) retired in February.
Provided his current roster stays reasonably healthy, Gentry believes it’s a team which could add to his previous six state titles (1986, 1987, 1991, 1996, 2011 and 2013).
“I think we’re only going to get better up front as the season goes on, and we’ve got the skill people to make a run,” Gentry said.
“But the key is we can’t afford any big injuries, especially in the backfield. Our depth there is just not good.”
Usual sideline rules do not apply to scrimmages, meaning coaches and players are on the field together. Gentry didn’t need an excuse Friday – he was in the middle of everything with critiques after good and bad plays for the Bulldogs. Gentry even signed an autograph or two afterwards.
“Coach Gentry has made such an impact on the last four years of my life,” Murphy senior linebacker/tight end Bradley Puccio said.
“By now, he’s almost like family to me.”
Gentry’s right-hand man on the Murphy coaching staff, associate head coach Caesar Campana, announced in June that this would be his last season. But Gentry said Friday that he is still evaluating his future.
“We’re going to do the best we can this season, then wait and see,” Gentry said.
Gentry is 10 years younger than Oddo was at the time of his decision to retire. The all-time record for NCHSAA football coaching wins (412) belongs to the late Jack Holley, who retired in 2011 at age 72. Gentry eclipsed WNC’s career record for victories in the sport – 301, belonging to the late Babe Howell – during the 2010 season.
Bulldogs senior running back/defensive back Deion Johnson said it has been a privilege to play for Gentry.
“I didn’t grow up in the best part of town,” Johnson said.
“So to have this team and (Gentry) has been a great experience, a real opportunity. We have a good group of guys on this team who won’t let you down.”
As for this year’s squad, Murphy welcomes back 13 returning starters (seven offense and six defense) from its 13-3 NCHSAA 1-A championship team.
Bulldogs junior Dalton Kent (1,814 yards and 19 touchdowns with three interceptions in 2013) has an array of weapons to choose from.
Former 1,000-yard rushers Gaige Cox (1,687 yards, 22 touchdowns) and Johnson (1,132 yards, 12 touchdowns) are back in the fold. As is All-WNC tight end Puccio (25 receptions for 503 yards and five touchdowns) and a fourth senior, Tyler Wiley (28 receptions for 435 yards and six touchdowns).
Puccio (159 tackles, 10 for a loss), senior Brody Loudermilk (111 tackles, 12 for a loss), senior Malachi Beaver (136 tackles, nine for a loss) and senior Bailey Beaver (82 tackles) are some of the key faces back for the defense.
Kicker Foster Stroup connected on 76 of his 81 extra-point attempts and five of six field goals as a junior.
Special teams were one of the deciding factors in December’s 1-A state championship game. Plymouth did not successfully attempt an extra-point kick in a 35-34 loss to the Bulldogs in Winston-Salem.
Murphy was the preseason favorite in a Smoky Mountain Conference coaches poll.
“The anticipation for this season has been ridiculous,” Puccio said with a wide grin on his face.
“Once everybody really gets their feet under them, this can be a great team.”