If things had worked out differently, Tommy Norwood would be catching some rays at the beach or teeing it up at a local golf course.
Instead, the veteran coach has decided to tackle one of the toughest jobs in high school football — turning around the troubled St. James football program.
“I planned on retiring after teaching and coaching for 36 years,” joked Norwood, who served as an assistant for the Sharks last season as a favor to predecessor Joey Price. “I moved a half-mile from the beach and bought a new set of golf clubs and I haven’t been able to use them.”
The Sharks have seen more than their share of turmoil in recent years, including a string of five seasons with four different head coaches. Following the resignation of Mark Fischer in 2014, assistant coach Robby Brown was promoted and led the Sharks to their first winning season in the school’s 14-year history in 2015. Brown stepped down the next year and Price stepped in last season before calling it quits to enter the ministry. Enter Norwood, who took over for Price to help the Sharks build a foundation for a successful program.
“I just felt the kids needed some stability,” said Norwood, who compares the challenge to his first head coaching job at Southeast Guilford (N.C.) in 1971. “I can understand why they wouldn’t trust me after so many people have told them the same thing (but) I have to show them that I’m with them.”
Norwood’s gesture was not lost on the players who have stuck with the program through all the turnover and turbulence.
Senior center Christian Mitchell said having Norwood step into the role showed he believed in the team and made the players believe in themselves.
“We’ve been through change before; it’s not fun,” Mitchell said. “If we’re going to have a new coach, you might as well have somebody that knows us, knows who we are, knows how we think and how we do things and kind of what our history is. So having Coach Norwood meant the world to us.”
Making the turn-around task even tougher was the Sharks’ off-season promotion to Class 5A, the top division in SCHSL football. St. James will play in Region 5-5A this season with Carolina Forest, Conway, Socastee, South Florence and West Florence — a difficult league for a program that has gone 2-17 over the past two years. Norwood hopes his Sharks are up to the challenge of playing at the highest level but knows the team must work on itself more than its opponents.
He’s changing Price’s old Wing-T offense and 4-5 defense to a more pro-style and run-stopping attack (“You have to coach what you know,” he said), adding to the Sharks’ workload.
“It’s going to be tough,” Mitchell said. “It’s 5A. The state of South Carolina is one of the best football states. It will be definitely tough, but we’re all up for the challenge. We’re all not going to back down. We’re going to embrace this opportunity. Playing at 5A just means more exposure and more opportunity for us.”
Not all the off-season news was bad for St. James. Senior quarterback Berkeley Young, who played only the first three games of the season before being sidelined with a shoulder injury, is back and ready to run the Sharks’ attack.
“It’s everything,” Young said of his return as the Sharks’ signal-caller. “It’s not really like a nervousness. It’s just like excited. It inspires me.”
St. James will count on Young’s experience, leadership and talent to spread the ball around to a talented cast of teammates. Senior running backs Chris Anderson and Ames Fowble lead a strong stable of rushers who will help carry the load on the ground, and senior receiver Austin Werba and newcomer Randy Smith will serve as primary targets.
Senior tight end Josh Ritchey will assist in the passing game while also blocking on the offensive line alongside Nate Murphy, Hunter Brock, Tanner Brink, Daulton Waring and Mitchell, who believes the Sharks have one of the most talented lineups during his tenure with the program.
“To be honest with you, I don’t really think we have a bad position on this team,” he said. “We have a lot of running backs. A lot of them are capable. Everybody’s changed their body (in the weight room). On the line of scrimmage, we’re bigger, we’re faster, we’re stronger. We’ve got a lot of depth on defense.”
The defensive line will be anchored by Jamale Faulkner and could see several linemen play both ways. Senior linebackers Gates Adams and Trevor Cole will be called upon to spearhead the unit, and two-way players Fowble, Werba and Smith will man the secondary.
Miles Herring and Jackson Sullivan will handle the kicking duties. The Sharks open the season with tough back-to-back road tests at Loris and Hilton Head Island. They close the inaugural Class 5A campaign with big local rivalry games with Carolina Forest, Conway and the Battle of Highway 707 against Socastee.
“It doesn’t matter who we play, or when we play, or where we play them,” Mitchell said of the 2018 foes. “We’re going to go out there and give everything we’ve got. And you know what? We’re going to let the results be what they are.”