Polk County’s 2023 football season left Fry wanting more

Published 8:32 am Monday, November 27, 2023

Dustin Fry ended his first season as Polk County’s head coach wanting more.

More players. More coaches. And, most definitely, more games.

The four-game losing streak that marked the end of Polk County’s 2023 season left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Wolverines, including Fry. The disappointment arose not just from the setbacks, which left Polk with a 4-7 mark, but the manner in which those four losses transpired.

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Polk County surrendered 239 points in those four games, with Murphy rushing for more than 500 yards and Chase nearly doing the same. With the Wolverines needing just one win in their final three regular-season games to secure a home playoff game, the losses and inability to stop the run proved doubly frustrating.

“We played our toughest schedule at the end of the year, conference-wise, but just disappointing how we ended,” Fry said. “We were healthy, so there’s no excuse that we were beat up or anything like that.

“The way we practiced this year, the way we did everything, was trying to sustain our starters through the year, and we did that. I hate limping into the end of a season. I can handle losing, but just getting blown out and feeling like you can’t stop anything on defense is disappointing.”

Polk County’s last four games were against playoff teams who finished with a combined record of 31-17, two of those teams reaching the third round (Brevard in 2A, Murphy in 1A). It was definitely the toughest stretch in the Wolverines’ schedule.

But Hendersonville, in its 34-30 loss to Polk, first showed that the Wolverines could be susceptible to the run, with Hezzie Rudisill picking up more than 300 yards. The Wolverines responded by holding R-S Central under 100 yards rushing in a 43-12 Homecoming win that sent Polk into its bye week with a 4-3 record, including a perfect 3-0 in conference play.

But Chase found a formula that worked well in its 70-26 thumping of Polk, largely running directly at the Wolverines between the tackles. It became a pattern that opponents would follow the rest of the season.

“I think it just exposed us more than anything,” Fry said. “Which is weird where you come off the R-S game where you give up something like 93 yards rushing and you think, OK, we are that bend, but don’t break team.

“But (Chase) definitely exposed us, like why do we need to throw? Let’s just run it at them even with as many guys in the box as we can put. Once that film got out, teams were like, we’re going to run it at them. They’ll stop you maybe a bit early on, but they’re not going to be able to hold up because they have no one to rotate in. They’re going to be tired and you can just keep running at them.”

Addressing that issue will be one of Fry’s focal points in the offseason. But the most pressing need for the Wolverines is finding more bodies to join the program. Polk had less than 40 players on its roster this season, leading the Wolverines not to field a junior varsity team.

Fourteen of those players were seniors, including quarterback Lawson Carter, receivers Antonio Simpson and Keaundrae Carter and four of the team’s starting offensive linemen. It’s going to mean a busy offseason for Fry.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do going into next year,” he said. “We’ve got some recruiting within school, trying to get some bigger guys out that want to be out and be here. It’s going to be a work in progress trying to find size.

“We’re playing a 2A schedule again next year. Some things in how we practice have got to be different. We’ve got to try to get as much good on good as we can. We did play some freshmen, so there’s a lot of guys that got experience that are coming back next year and kids that will be better next year.

“Talking to the Brevard coach before that game and in the conference meeting, he’s like, I’ve got 76 kids, we didn’t have to play both ways this year, we had one kid go both ways. He has 79, I’ve got 39. We’re playing both ways and most teams in our conference didn’t play both ways. We’ve got to figure out a way to get more buy-in.”

Getting more players and more community interest is only part of the equation for Fry, who also wants to grow his coaching staff. Polk began the season with just four coaches before adding Billy Alm to the staff, but the total of five was still significantly fewer than nearly every opponent.

“Every other school you look at, there’s at least double the amount of coaches we have, and probably almost 50 percent more kids,” Fry said.

“So that’s going to be the key, getting more kids out and being able to have depth and being able to substitute guys and get more coaches out there to have more eyes, to be able to practice differently, to be able to do more segmented-type practices and not have to do full team stuff because you don’t have enough coaches or eyes.

“It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a little while, but that’s where we’ve got to be. We’ve got to get our numbers up and we’ve got to get our coaching numbers up.”

While the season didn’t end as Polk County would have liked, there were still positives to be found.

Simpson earned selection as the Mountain Foothills 7 Conference Player of the Year and was picked for the East-West All-Star Game. Carter, in his first varsity season, threw for more than 2,000 yards. Loreynzo Sanchez finished with just under 1,000 yards rushing. Green had 40 receptions, and all four of those players joined Jadyn Virgil on the all-conference team.

“I felt good having those guys,” Fry said. “I thought Keaundrae was a bright spot because he, by the end of the year, turned into a pretty decent vocal guy for us, with some positivity. It was good to see LoSan (Sanchez) do what I thought he could do. To see how he runs and catches the ball out of the backfield and to see him put that in games, we knew that’s what he could do.

“It was good to see Lawson come in and have a really good year. I wish I had him for another year. Tony and Keaundre were awesome. Obviously, you game plan around those four guys. It helped to game plan for them all and spread the ball around and not feel like you’re focusing on one.

“There were a lot of positives. I wish we could have been a little higher scoring on offense in some games and being able to be a little bit more explosive. Defensively, to be able to play (freshmen Sawyer Huff and Styler Blackwell) and get them a lot of reps. Zalen (McCraw) ended up being one of the top in the conference in tackles, so that’s going to be invaluable for him going into next year. Nolan (Simpson) getting a lot of reps and playing pretty well at defensive back. So there were a lot of positives. I just wish we would have finished better.”

The year also proved challenging on a personal level for Fry, who had a tree crash through his new home in the days just before the West Henderson game. That led to an odyssey where he and his family lived in four different locations from summer to season’s end.

But Fry is thinking long-term about Polk County’s program, and he hopes the on-field and off-field adversity will lead to better times.

“There were good positives to take from it,” he said. “Things that I’m going to do next year, things I won’t do next year, things I’m going to change. It’s a good learning experience for future seasons.”