HICKORY – For a program that has won just four games in the past three years, there sure is a lot of buzz on the Hickory High School practice field these days. And Russell Stone is to thank for it.
Stone, who took over the program in March, provides 38 years of coaching experience and knowledge to the struggling Red Tornadoes. He also contributes a winning attitude to a team that has desperately needed it.
Last year, he led Village Christian Academy to the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association Division III championship game. The year before, he guided Jay M. Robinson to an 8-5 record and a second-round appearance in the 3AA state playoff.
In 2014, he served on the staff at Northern Guilford, who finished 15-1 and won the 3AA state title. But Stone thinks his current squad looks most like the teams he coached at Douglas Byrd a decade ago in Fayetteville. He took over a similarly struggling program in 2007 and won six games his first season. The next year, Byrd played in the 4A championship game.
While plenty of work remains to be done, Stone has been impressed with what he’s seen so far.
“I see a bunch of kids that are older, a year stronger and tired of losing,” he said.
Few teams have lost as often as the Red Tornadoes recently – the past three teams combined to go 4-29. Last season, Hickory doubled its win total from the year before, but a rocky 0-6 start left the players feeling deflated and had some believing the previous coaching staff had given up on them.
Stone believes, however, that the players have already taken a crucial step in righting the ship.
“They’re beginning to enjoy the game,” Stone said. “That was the key to it. It was kind of misery for them up until now.”
Senior wide receiver Jaekwon Staten will be playing for his fourth coach in four years, but said he hasn’t felt this much energy in the program before. Despite loss after loss, the team still has a lot of confidence heading into the new season, in large part because of their inspiring leader.
“He’s a great coach,” Staten said. “He’s pretty cool and he knows a lot of people. He knows what he’s doing. He’s a great fit for Hickory, if you ask me.”
Whether that confidence translates to success on the field remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain – when the Red Tornadoes take the field Aug. 18 against Statesville, the goal won’t be to avoid another losing season. Stone expects his team to compete for a conference title this year and make a run into late November.
“I’m just getting warmed up,” he said.