Story and Photos by Matthew Yoder
The challenge for all football teams at any level of play is to stay healthy. Those that do stand a greater chance of success moving forward. For the Chincoteague Ponies, the depth chart is eternally a challenge to this end, but on this August evening the players, in particular, seem unencumbered by the numbers game as they shuffle through linemen drills.
The student-athletes approach to answer questions during a break, and they do so eagerly. Seemingly all 20 players gather round as one to talk about the upcoming season. It’s difficult to determine from whom answers are coming in the padded masses, but the goal is simple, says one: “go positive” this year. They all realize playing a majority of the snaps on both sides of the ball is the reality here, but their love of the game is the essence that drives them.
“A lot of us don’t see the sidelines,” said senior center and linebacker Bill Reed, but as a glimpse into how little concern this is to him and his teammates, he followed assuredly with, “we’re just having fun.”
His candor was shared by Wes Britton, running back, safety, and jokingly, “any position needed.”
“We don’t have depth, but it’s been like that for years,” said Britton of the carousel nature of their games.
Their coach, Tony Nock, is no stranger to leading smaller squads. He spoke of one year fielding a team at Broadwater with only 14 athletes. He answers questions with a steady eye to his team. This is his second season as head coach at Chincoteague. When asked about his team’s performance from a year ago, he pauses to put that season in proper context.
“They were a tough bunch, very aggressive,” Nock said.
“Same thing going into this year. They play as a unit with a lot of guts,” he added.
For Nock, the focus on this team is not athleticism. He feels he has plenty of great athletes to work with. It’s also not a question of unity. For all the rotational complications of directing a small team, Nock believes an advantage is the ease at which unity is achieved. The goal without a doubt is to keep players on the field. Bottomline: To win games this year, Nock says, “the team has to stay healthy.”
“We have to play a chess game when we lose players,” he said. “With little depth and no JV program, we run true ironman football.”
He sees his line, both defense and offense, as a strength headed into their first game and is encouraged by the attitude of his players. Nock pivots to explain the attribute that sets football apart from other sports, saying, “It’s the one sport where you got to have a supporting cast and truly rely on the 10 other players with you on the field.”
Every year the team huddles around a theme. For 2019, Nock said, that theme is, “Every pony makes a footprint.”
Every coach seeks wins but for Nock, he’s looking for every player to do their best for their school. With ten seniors entering their final season at Chincoteague, this seems a very apt theme.
“Did you put everything on the field?” Nock asks of his players.
That these students are out practicing and playing, knowing from the outset there is no prospect of postseason football, per their demotion from district games, is a testament to their love of the sport. It’s a way of life fostered at an early age on the island, and despite the numerically challenged roster, if it were up to the players, they would love to rekindle old rivalries.
“We miss playing Arcadia and hard competition,” Britton said.
For now, the players stride back to the practice field for tackling drills, eagerly awaiting the season and competition dealing with the same logistical challenges, with never any love lost for this game.