Northgate back to full strength
by Chris Goltermann
A broken arm, a bout of mononucleosis and a starting guard transitioning to fullback.
What do the above have in common? Well, nothing anymore.
But at this point last season they were all among the issues hampering Northgate’s football team heading into its opener against Heritage of Conyers.
A year later, seniors Benton Washington, Ryan Fagerstrom and T.J. Womack are respective assets in defined starting roles as the Vikings prepare to host the Patriots on Friday at Henry Seldon Field.
The trio are as much an example of the clean slate Northgate opens the year with in 2013. For a program looking to reach the state playoffs for the third consecutive season in its hopes of building a consistent winner, it’s a step back in the right direction.
“We’re still in the early stages of trying to build a program,” said Vikings head coach Tommy Walburn. “The first thing we’ve got to do is become a consistent playoff team. You usually don’t go from not making the playoffs one year to winwwning a state championship.”
Northgate may come into this year under less of a spotlight than in 2012, when the program was coming off the excitement of the school’s second ever region football title and a trip to the second round of the Class AAAA state playoffs.
As star-studded as lastw year’s Northgate roster was — and four freshmen at Division I programs may be proof — head coach Tommy Walburn feels this year’s roster has the potential to continue what the Vikings have started in 2011 and 2012.
“A lot of times you can’t judge a team by how many Division I players they’ve got,” Walburn said. “It’s still a team. And I do feel like we have a number of kids on this team that have the ability to play college football. We just don’t have any right now with all those stars by their name. I don’t feel like we have one superstar, but a team full of talented guys.”
Washington and Womack enter this season as starters in the backfield after combining for 1,483 yards and 11 touchdowns last fall. But it wasn’t until late in the year that both were lining up together in the Vikings wing-T set.
The team’s early offensive struggles during a 5-6 season in 2012 may have been showcased in last year’s opener at Heritage, a 9-7 loss that was a tug-of-war between respective defensive units.
Together, Northgate reeled off three straight wins at the close the regular season to claim Region 4-AAAAA’s final state playoff berth before falling in the first round to Harris County.
“When some of those guys got healthy we started to roll a little bit,” Walburn said. “It just took us until about the sixth game to start going. By the time we got to the playoffs, we had everybody there. Hopefully we can start a little quicker this year.”
At this time last year, Womack was being moved from offensive guard to fullback when Washington broke his arm. The injury limited him to five games and 77 carries while still managing seven touchdowns and 8 yards per rush.
Womack, meanwhile, equally thrived in his new role, posting team highs in both carries (181) and yards (868).
“He wound up becoming one of the better running backs, I think, in the region,” Walburn said of Womack. “We know he’s a running back now. Last year we were just scrambling around just wondering what 11 were going to play on offense and what 11 on defense. Every time we’d come up with something, someone else would go down. That’s been nice knowing where they’re going to be.”
Fagerstrom, meanwhile, is now a defensive centerpiece at middle linebacker and in charge of relaying the calls from the sidelines. A year ago, he was still recovering from a bad bout of mononucleosis the previous spring that hampered his progress. Despite making 52 tackles through five games, his body gave out following Oct. 5 loss to Whitewater.
“He’s a lot bigger this year and he’s had a great offseason,” Walburn said of the 235-pound senior. “He couldn’t make it physically through last season.”
There are definite ramifications for some of the losses to last year’s senior class. The Viking coach admits it is hard to replace the size left by DeAndre Johnson (Georgia) and Sean Spencer (Navy), both of whom were over 6-feet and 240-pounds on the line of scrimmage.
“My biggest concern on this football team is that we just don’t have any size on the line,” Walburn. “We’re smaller on the offensive and defensive line so we have to make up for that with playing hard, playing low and playing fast.”
Last season’s string of injury problems, however, may have benefitted Northgate in the long run.
It compelled the coaching staff to come up with safeguards to prevent a repeat in the future. Over the offseason, the team improved its depth at nearly every position with offensive line and secondary units both deeper than a year ago.
“Football is a game of repetitions. A lot of things you do are unnatural, so you’ve got to have a lot of reps. The more you practice, the better you’re going to get. We just didn’t ever have that continuity with all the injuries we had,” Walburn said. “By the time we got to the playoffs, it had taken us so much energy to get there, I think we got a little out of gas.”
This year’s group of seniors are also the first that have been with Walburn and his staff throughout their high school careers since arriving as freshmen. The program’s progress is as much measured in players such as senior starting center John Proctor.
“He’s worked his tail off, he’s come in the weight room every day, he’s taken his lumps on the scout team and now he’s the starting center. And he’s a great kid.” Walburn refers to players like Proctor as “program kids.” And their worth is as invaluable as any that sign a Division I scholarship toward becoming a consistent playoff contender.
“The big programs that are consistent winners, they don’t always have great players. But they have program kids. We’ve got some program guys in here this year that maybe when they started off as freshmen you didn’t think they’d play at all, but a kid like John Proctor at center is a program kid,” Walburn said. “That’s what you do. You can’t build a consistent winning, playoff program without those types of kids.”