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Knights aim to start off on the right foot
Jay Parks
JAY PARKS ... NC two-way starter

C.A. Johnson at North Central

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.

2013 records: CAJ: 4-7; NC: 3-8

Series record: First meeting

The Skinny: Tonight marks the start of the 36th season of football at North Central. Over that time, the Knights have won 170 games with 207 losses … Louis Clyburn enters his sixth season at the North Central helm. He has a 12-40 record as the head coach in Boonetown and a 17-46 overall mark in seven seasons as a high school head coach … The Knights are 15-20 in season openers and have lost their last 16 in a row to start the season   … The Knights are hoping to embark on their first winning season since finishing 6-5 in 2003. The visiting Hornets have not posted a winning season since finishing 7-4 in 2009.

How long has it been since North Central opened the football season with a victory? Well, the last school which the Knights beat to kick off a campaign is no longer in existence.

It was in 1997 when NC upended the Rattlers from Mount Pleasant High School, 37-21, that the Boonetown faithful last had something to cheer about the night of game one. Since then, it has been a string of late August night frustrations for the Knights whose dry spell includes eight defeats at the hands of Lugoff-Elgin and a pair coming against Camden.

When learning this information, sixth-year NC head coach Louis Clyburn said it would not affect the way his team prepared for tonight’s Week Zero home game with C.A. Johnson. But the Knight boss said that every coach and every team wants and tries to start the season on the right foot, regardless of what has or has not been done in the past.

“Obviously, it can set the tempo for your season,” Clyburn said of coming away with an opening night victory. “We’ve had a couple years where we played a tough opponent and there have been years where we’ve played Camden in the first game. It’s been a battle.

“It’s so much nicer to say, though, that after the trials and tribulations and after all the work that you’ve put in and everything you have done all summer pays off when you win that first game. That would do wonders for our kids’ morale and help keep them going. And it’s the same thing with the coaches. Heck, it’s great for the head coach to get a win that first week.”

A year ago, NC came within inches of snapping the skid, only to come out on the short end of a 12-6 overtime loss at Cardinal Newman.

Tonight marks the third straight season in which the Knights open on Week Zero. As the countdown to game night dwindled, Clyburn said it does not seem as if the season should be here already.

“Everything’s so quick this year, for some reason,” he said of the end of pre-season practice sessions. “Everything’s coming faster with the way the pre-season goes and the way the school calendar is now. We had a week of two-a-days. Coach (Guy) Eckenroth and I were talking the other day and it seemed like we had a month of two-a-days in 1987 when I was playing high school football.

“The good part about our team, though, is that we had very good participation all summer with our weight lifting and passing leagues.”

Clyburn said rebuilding the offensive line has been a process which is still evolving while the defense had to be revamped after having lost four college signees from that side of the ball. “I think we’re in a good place,” Clyburn said as to the progress being made in those two areas heading into tonight.

Against C.A. Johnson, the Knights will face an offense which is breaking in a new quarterback following the graduation of four-year starter Michael Knox. Also gone is all-everything receiver Peter Goodman. Charles Mallory has made the move from wide out and will be under center to direct an offense which is powered by a large front line which includes, at least, three players who weigh in at 230 pounds or, better.

The Hornets will employ three and sometimes, four wide receivers with one back in a shotgun set.

Defensively, CAJ operates out of a 3-4 scheme and has enough athleticism to play man-to-man coverage in the secondary while blitzing when needed.

“This is not a cupcake opener by any stretch,” Clyburn said of Jerry Jackson’s squad. “We have to execute the fundamentals. The team that executes and does not turn the ball over is the one which will have the best chance to win.”

While turnovers and special teams can play a role in the outcome of a season opener, another factor may well be the weather. With temperatures forecast for the 90s at kickoff, the upper hand could go to the team which best deals with the conditions.

“We have not had a ton of heat this pre-season. In that respect, we’ve been very fortunate,” Clyburn said. “But recently, we have tried to get our kids out in the afternoon heat a little more. This past week, we practiced from 1:30 (p.m.) until 3:30 to try and acclimate them to the heat.”

Clyburn said with at least seven players having to play both ways and with experienced depth an issue, there is a concern as to the effect the heat might have on his players.

“Our plan is to rotate our players, even if is just for two plays, to get a substitute in there,” Clyburn. “It’s going to be a critical night as to how we substitute our players.”

One thing which Clyburn and his staff have preached to their players throughout the week is to play as hard as they can when they are on the field.

“What we have tried to emphasize to our players is that they can’t afford to take a play off,” he said. “You have to give 100 percent each play. You can’t afford to relax and then, maybe, give up a big play.”

Hopefully, Clyburn said, it will be his Knights who are the ones making the big plays and, by evening’s end, have the better of things on the scoreboard and put a losing streak to bed and take momentum into next Friday’s game at Timmonsville.

“Is it critical to having a successful season when you win that first game? No,” Clyburn said in answering his own question. “At the same time, it can be a huge boost for you.”