A juggling act… Unaka’s Bennett trying to be flexible in approach to 2020 season

Published 2:34 pm Tuesday, May 12, 2020

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O’Brien Bennett, head football coach at Unaka High School, cringes to think about what could happen to sports at Unaka High School should the TSSAA makes a decision to close down the season.

Like many small schools, Unaka depends upon the football season to support other sports during the school year plus the school band. 

But he also thinks about what it does to his team and their state of mind, especially the rising seniors who have played for this season since they first picked up a football. 

Bennett is a firm believer in weight lifting to make a team stronger and has pulled out all stops in hopes of keeping his team motivated especially without having been able to participate in spring practice.

“We hang our hat on our off-season program,” Bennett said. “We are usually in the weight room working and conditioning starting in January up through spring practice in May.

“Before we left, we provided players with a bodyweight workout program that could be done from home. As the lockdown was extended, we divided players into teams for a lockdown lifting competition.

“The team that makes the most gains gets a steak dinner at practice when we get back,” Bennett said.”Our coaching staff has done a good job reaching out and staying in contact to make sure everyone has access to anything they needed and our team leaders have really stepped up understanding that this doesn’t have to be a setback, it is a great opportunity for us if we can take advantage of it.”

Bennett is one of the more fortunate coaches around as he has a bulk of leadership slated to come back for the 2020 season after losing only three seniors to graduation last season.

He is hoping that will pay off big for the Rangers when his team is able to reunite as a unit.

“Missing spring practice certainly puts us behind on the on-field player evaluation aspect of the program,” stated Bennett. “Fortunately, we have a very veteran team made up of guys who have been playing big roles for two or three seasons already.

“Hopefully, from an X and O’s standpoint, we will be able to get back in the swing of things quickly. We only graduated 3 seniors, but those three were major contributors, not only with their play but their leadership.

“How we replace those guys production and leadership were our big question marks going into the off-season,” continued Bennett. “Viewing from a distance, I think we have had leaders really step up during this time.

“Missing spring practice will, however, put us behind in answering our on-field questions.”

And should Unaka along with other schools be able to return to the field in the fall with the possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 very much a reality, what Bennett and his coaching staff has learned from the first stoppage is the true meaning of being flexible.

“We want to make sure we are flexible enough in our plans and our scheme that we can adapt quickly to changing circumstances. In addition, we want to make sure we have better communication lines in place with some of the new players who we haven’t been able to get in touch with during the lockdown,” the Ranger skipper said.

“As far as schematically, we don’t want to over coach things. We don’t know how this will play out, so we need to be prepared to work with a reduced playbook to ensure we can execute sufficiently with less preparation time.

“Some concepts are more expensive than others in terms of teaching and practice time to be able to execute on a Friday night. We’ve tossed those out the window for 2020.”


Bennett really doesn’t know what to expect on how the 2020 season might actually look – whether the schedules will be reduced if there will be limited travel or when the games could actually start.

That’s where Bennett has to just depend on leadership from others and hope that the right decisions can be made with the health of everyone the top priority.


“I hesitate to speculate given there is so much that we don’t know about the virus,” Bennett commented. “The best minds in the nation are still in data collection and analysis mode.
“I think we will know a lot more at the beginning of June as data from the re-opening comes in. Like the Coronavirus task force, we can’t operate on speculation, only on the information we actually possess.
“So until information to the contrary comes in, we are operating on the presumption that we will kick off at 7:30 pm on August 21st against North Greene.”


Just like other schools in the Rangers conference, many of the athletes will play two, three, and maybe even four sports in representing their school. 

Bennett was presented with the question of how difficult it would be for his players to transition to basketball should the football season be extended or should the players have to play both sports at the same time depending on how the two seasons intertwine.

“That’s something we will have to sit down and figure out as it comes around. Football and basketball share a lot of skills and at Unaka we really encourage our kids to participate in all the sports they are interested in participating in,” Bennett said.
“Aaron and Tee both have been great to work with and we all try to work together to do what is best for the kids. If that time comes, we’ll do what we always do, work together, and make a plan that may not be perfect, but works for everyone involved.”

Bennett does feel that with everything that has transpired a great lesson that teachers and coaches try to teach their students might actually stick since students have experience the lesson first hand.

“Hopefully, this whole unfortunate situation will reinforce the things that we have been telling them for years – you reap what you sow,” said Bennett. “You can’t control the outcome or the outside circumstances, all you can do is plant the right seeds.

“The 2020 football season will be a prime example of that. There won’t be any hiding the work you did or did not do.”


When asked if his approach to each game would be handled differently than how he has done so in the past Bennett said, ” No. It’s cliché, but you really do take things one game at a time. It’s a one-game season every week until it’s over.”

The Ranger head coach is in the same boat as his other peers in hoping that his Rangers can get back on the gridiron soon and put all the past few months in the rear-view mirror as Unaka continues to drive down the road toward bigger and brighter things.