Despite coming off a successful year, Petal will have to reload for the 2020 season.
However, Petal does return essential experience in Micah Cherry and Jonathan Harris, who both started on offense and defense.
According to Petal coach Marcus Boyles, the team will rely on both their leadership and experience.
“They have been guys that are going into their third year to start,” Boyles said. “They started as sophomores and just have really grown up. We are leaning on them heavily because we have a lot of new faces on both sides of the ball. We are really going to lean on them for their leadership and athletic ability.
“We had some really great ones on defense, but now it’s their time to step up. They have always led by example. We need guys to lead by example, but we need them to be vocal too.”
Both Cherry and Harris both play at wide receiver and are also defensive backs, and notably, they are the only two returning starters for the Panther defense.
On defense last season, Cherry made 41 tackles, four interceptions and four forced fumbles while on offense, he caught 31 catches for 551 yards and four touchdowns.
“(Cherry) is a deep-ball guy, but he is a guy that can find that crease on defense,” Boyles said. “He finds those open spots and sees windows really well and catches the ball really well.”
Harris was equally effective on both sides of the balls as he made 40 tackles, three interceptions and had a fumble recovery. On offense, Harris made 31 catches for 579 yards and five touchdowns.
“Jon is that guy who can make the hard catch and can make that catch in traffic,” Boyles said. “He has a burst of speed that you really don’t expect.”
Both Cherry and Harris understand the importance of their roles, and it’s a role that they are ready to embrace.
“We have been wanting this role ever since we were on the high school team,” Cherry said. “Things didn’t work out exactly how we would have liked to last year. (The coaches have said) that it’s all on us really and on our back.
“I feel like this is what we have been built up for. We had great role models when we moved up. We were taught how things should be, how we should work. How we should carry ourselves and how we should carry the rest of the team. I feel like this is the role that we are built for. Coach Boyles and other former players who came through Petal did their job of mentoring us to be ready.”
Both Cherry and Harris understand that they both need to follow some of the leaders they remembered during their time at Petal, such as Natorian’ Duece’ Watts, Trent Williams and especially Marquise Bridges. Bridges recently led the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College with 782 receiving yards and was second on the team with 43 receptions and six touchdowns and helped the Bulldogs win the 2019 NJCAA championship.
“He didn’t get the ball too much in high school, but when he did, he tried to do everything he could with it,” Harris said. “He was just that guy you could count on and never complained. He went to Gulf Coast and worked there and started as a freshman with three other receivers that were sophomores. Then he was the only guy starting as a sophomore. Now he’s playing at that Division I level. We look to him because he was that guy we competed with in practice and the same guy we worked with on off days.”
On the field, both Cherry and Harris will lineup various wide receiver positions while on defense Cherry will primarily player cornerback while Harris will switch between safety and cornerback. For Harris, learning and having a better understanding of the team’s playbook has been his main focus in the offseason.
“I have to be more vocal and learn everybody’s spot,” Harris said. Coach (Boyles) has told me that I have to be a leader of the defense and speak up more and be more vocal.”
Like Harris, Cherry will need to understand the playbook beyond his own roles and hopes to prove that his younger teammates can rely on him.
“Being that leader and making the plays that aren’t expected and finishing those 50/50 plays is something that we have to place major emphasis on,” Cherry said. “I have to make sure that the other corners and defensive back understand the playbook. Like Coach (Boyes) said that they need me to come out because I was just on the last drive on offense. I need to ensure that whenever I’m not in that, we are still in good hands.”
Both seniors also understand that while it’s important to lead their team that it’s just as important to be teachers for the young team.
“They have told us to stay on everybody and make sure nobody is slacking,” Harris said. “We have to pick them up, but at the same time, nobody really needs to be pushed. We are missing spots, but we have guys who want to fill those spots. They are hungry and want to learn to try and fill those spots.”
According to Cherry, their leadership will play a significant part in the team’s season, but that it’s also vital to ensure the program’s culture stays established.
“(Our leadership) is going to be a very big factor,” Cherry said. “Like Jon said, we have some guys that want those positions, and we know they’ll put in the work, but we have to show everything that goes with it. It’s not all just football, and it’s not all just pumping weights. It’s a mental game, and it’s a physical game so it’s our job that we can give them everything and that they can count us and be reliable. We make sure that they get it done. It’s making sure that they aren’t skipping reps and trying to make other people better. Overall, before we are done, we want to make sure that we leave Petal football a lot better than when we go.”