‘WEIRD, BUT I GOT USED TO IT’

At Woods Charter, Wolves tackling preseason workouts with gusto

BY CHAPEL FOWLER, News + Record Staff
Posted 10/28/20

CHAPEL HILL — This summer, Woods Charter got quite the aesthetic upgrade: a brand-new gym floor that made its sidelines and baselines and midcourt green and grey Wolves logo shine.

Now, …

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‘WEIRD, BUT I GOT USED TO IT’

At Woods Charter, Wolves tackling preseason workouts with gusto

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CHAPEL HILL — This summer, Woods Charter got quite the aesthetic upgrade: a brand-new gym floor that made its sidelines and baselines and midcourt green and grey Wolves logo shine.

Now, finally, it’s getting some substantial use.

“By the time it gets to mid-basketball season, it'll need to be re-waxed,” varsity men’s basketball coach Taij Cotten said last Thursday, almost gleefully, as he stood at the gym’s front entrance.

Dribbling basketballs. Bouncing volleyballs. Squeaking and scuffing shoes. In a year of coronavirus restrictions, they’ve all been familiar and comforting noises for the Wolves, who over the last month have ramped up their most substantial preseason “skill sessions” under NCHSAA guidelines.

Nowadays, on Woods Charter’s K-12 campus just inside the Chatham County line, you can find at least a handful of high school basketball or volleyball athletes working out, every Monday through Thursday.

“A lot of us were really disappointed when we couldn’t start the season at the normal time,” junior volleyball player Jana Thompson said. “Being able to get back in the gym — even if it’s limited people, limited time — I think it’s still been fun.”

And intense. When Thompson spoke with the News + Record, her “pod” of eight athletes had just finished their sixth workout in three weeks, all on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Since a second pod goes on Mondays and Wednesdays, volleyball head coach Scott Green had just finished supervising his 12th.

“I’m just thankful that we’re going have a season,” he said. “For a long time, I was fearful that we weren't … so I’ll go through whatever extra stuff I have to go through.”

Along with the regular duties of volleyball coaches — getting out, setting up, taking down and wrapping up the net every day can get old — Green and new assistant coach Taylor Ritchie have embraced the cards dealt to them: no contact, 6 feet of distancing between everyone, 90-minute time limits.

With full-on scrimmages out of the questions, the Wolves have gotten creative with a mix of drills, which are listed at each workout in blue dry-erase marker on a whiteboard Green props up in the bleachers.

Last Thursday, those included some standard ones (serves, serve receives, two-person rallies) and unique ones (reaction balls, cone drills, three-on-three points on a slimmer, half-sized court).

“(Ritchie’s) brought a lot, and I think the drills have been really good for the pods,” Thompson said. “It’s different with not a lot of people, but it’s more engaging.”

Earlier on Thursday, Cotten was working on getting personal, too. His Monday pod includes all of the Wolves’ returning varsity players, but his other group is small: just three freshmen.

So Alex Smollen, Eli Hutter-DeMarco and Ethan Green (volleyball coach Scott’s son) each had a hoop and a ball to themselves with room to spare — plus a better chance at individual work with Cotten, a 2008 Northwood alum who played varsity basketball for the Chargers.

“In a lot of other circumstances, these freshmen and sophomore guys would be playing JV ball,” Cotten said. “They might not even get any action with the varsity coach. For them, I definitely think it’s a good opportunity.”

Smollen, a freshman who’s hoping to join his older brother, Luke, on the varsity roster, agreed. The reps are valuable, he said, even if they’re contactless and distanced.

“It’s kind of weird, but I got used to it,” Smollen said. “Ball-handling, knocking off the rust, getting my shooting form down again.”

For Cotten and Green, there’s a sense of urgency, too.

Both coaches are entering their third year with their respective programs. The basketball team is a combined 4-33 since 2018, and the volleyball team is a combined 3-35. Both are still trying to gain traction in the Central Tar Heel 1A Conference, an all-charter conference (Chatham Charter’s also a member) that sent five volleyball and four men’s basketball teams to the NCHSAA playoffs last year.

But the players on those young Woods Charter teams of old are experienced upperclassmen now.

“The older group on Monday, I've seen a big change in them,” Cotten said. “There’s a sense of readiness, preparation (as compared to) last year. That's all I've preached on them: preparation, preparation.”

Considering how far off basketball season is — NCHSAA schools don’t officially practice until Dec. 7 and play until Jan. 4 — Cotten has also been encouraged by workout attendance. At a small school like Woods Charter, seeing 15 or 16 guys throughout the week “is like perfect attendance for me,” he said.

For volleyball, Green said he’s expecting his eight juniors to be the “core of the team,” performance- and leadership-wise. Thompson, a returning team captain who will play outside hitter this season, is among that group. She said the Wolves’ goal this season is tangible results – not just moral victories.

“We’re not really known as a winning team,” Thompson said, “but I think this year we have a lot of potential. We’re playing well together, meshing. I hope we can do that with the other pod, too. Our main goal is to just win some.”

Reporter Chapel Fowler can be reached at cfowler@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @chapelfowler.

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