With 15 players on roster, Knights’ Chris Callicutt strives to rebuild Chatham Charter’s soccer program

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Last season, Chatham Charter was one of many 1A schools in the state to not field a men’s (or women’s) soccer team, citing both a lack of interest and COVID-19-related challenges as primary reasons for the absence of action on the pitch.

But things are different this year, with the Knights playing their first soccer games since the 2019-20 season. Their journey to rebuild the program began with two straight losses to start the season — a 9-0 defeat to N.C. Leadership Academy on Aug. 18 and a 7-4 loss to Providence Grove on Monday — but the simple fact that soccer is being played at both Siler City high schools this year is plenty reason for excitement and optimism.

With Chatham Charter’s season getting under way last week, the News + Record sat down with Knights first-year head coach Chris Callicutt to discuss the obstacles of restarting the Knights’ program, his background in sports other than soccer and his outlook for the remainder of the season.

Callicutt is in his fourth year as a health & physical education teacher at Chatham Charter — three years at the middle school level, now at the high school level — taking over the men’s soccer head coaching job this summer after former Knights head coach Scott Kidd became the Town Manager of Liberty. (Kidd remains an assistant under Callicutt.) He has a playing/coaching background in both basketball and tennis, with soccer not being his “natural sport,” he said, but he’s gleaned enough knowledge from Kidd to make him confident enough to revitalize the Knights’ program.

How does your basketball and tennis background help you become a better soccer coach? Obviously, there are a ton of differences but there are plenty of similarities.

CHRIS CALLICUTT: There’s some athletic standpoints, as far as skills, that can correlate between all three, whether it be footwork, stamina, cardio, athleticism and things of that nature. Also, as far as the similarity with basketball, I feel that with spacing, defensive strategies and offensive strategies, there’s a lot of stuff that you can pull from as far as play design and different formations that can sort of correlate between basketball and soccer that are somewhat similar, similar enough to where you can put them into place and the guys can understand them.

What made you want to take over a program that’s rebuilding versus taking over another that already has the pieces in place?

Being a rural team, soccer is not going to be the natural first sport, so I saw it as an opportunity for myself to get some kids invested and interested in an opportunity and get them in a mindset that they are going to be a part of something bigger, whether it be this year or two years or three years down the road, when we can restart something and make it into, eventually, an annual conference champion. That’s the ultimate goal. But when you have teams in your conference who are more metro-oriented that have soccer clubs every weekend, things like that, you’re put behind the 8-ball a little bit. But at the same time, that’s what I like to build within my players. I like to give them a challenge and give them something to work for.

What are some of the challenges you’ve already experienced in trying to rebuild a program that didn’t field a team last year?

Numbers, in general. Our first workout, I think we had four guys and now we’re up to 15. So between the sheer willpower of the players to recruit their friends and say, “Hey let’s be a part of this bigger thing, let’s challenge ourselves, learn a new sport and get better every day,” that’s really a testament to the kids and how much they wanted to have a team.

That was one of our main challenges — just sheer numbers. And now that we have 15, we have a little bit of flexibility for injuries or anything that may happen — bad luck throughout the year. We still have a couple of subs that we can plug in. I pretty much play all of my guys every game to give them some experience. Now that the players have kind of worked themselves and gathered themselves up and got some friends involved, we have plenty of kids now and we’re looking forward to a good season.

And I would say another challenge would be the heat. With soccer, per NCHSAA rules, wet-bulb temperature is a big hot topic now. You’ve got to sort of check that before every practice and every game. You’ve got to have your hydration breaks. In a 90-minute practice, you may have to spend 20 minutes of that in a rest time. Just the safety of the kids, keeping them in shape and getting them in shape while at the same time being in the heat has been a little bit of a challenge.

When you saw just four players at the opening workout, what was going through your mind? How were you able to increase participation from that point forward?

I mean your core four that showed up were the guys who really wanted to play. I knew that if I challenged them that they would come through and they did. Then, they challenged others to come through. At the same time, I knew that (former Chatham Charter men’s soccer head coach) Coach (Scott) Kidd said in his first workout two years ago, he only had five and he ended up with 11 or 12 that year. He said, “Coach, don’t get discouraged. It’s the first day. It’s 97 degrees out here, it’s 8 in the morning. Don’t worry about it now, just get the kids working,” and his advice paid off. He had been through kind of that process before of trying to field a team and did a good job with it, so he basically just said, “Stay optimistic and, hopefully, the kids will respond,” and they did, for sure.

The season-opener against N.C. Leadership Academy didn’t necessarily go the way you might have hoped it would, but that game aside, what are your expectations for your first season with the Knights?

Being a first-year head coach and with a lot of teams taking two years off with COVID, I’m not sure what all our conference has yet, so it’s going to be kind of a feeling-out process. But I would love the challenge because we have, I think, a lot of good pieces on our team that can do their roles extremely well and we’re finding out who those guys are. There’s some good pieces there, a good mix of experience, a good mix of athleticism and a good mix of good role players. I think we have a chance to be a good, cohesive team with the more reps we get. So the first month and a half here is going to be non-conference. We won’t start our conference season until the beginning of October, so we’re going to have, I think, seven or eight games before then to kind of work out the kinks, feel out the process and figure out who’s going to be best at what spot. Last week during our game was the very first time that I had all 15 guys in the same spot at once. I was still adding guys the day before the game, so we hadn’t even had a full team practice yet where we could scrimmage all together. It was very much a feeling-out process, plugin’ and playin’ to see who could fit where and just finding out what we have. It was more of a dry run, so to speak, and now we have a better feel because we’ve had a few more practices.

You’ve mentioned some of the good pieces you have on your squad, so who are some of those pieces and what are you looking forward to most about them?

On the defensive end, out of the 15 kids that I have, I only have two returners, if that tells you anything. One of those returners is Cedric Schwartz; he will be playing on the defensive side of the ball as a centerback, primarily. He brings experience, toughness, leadership and has all of the qualities you would want in a team leader. He doesn’t give up, he encourages the guys, he’s got some good size to him. He’s just going be a force to be reckoned with on that back line. He’s a junior.

And then for our senior, I wasn’t sure if he was going to play because it took a little coaxing, but I’m happy to see Casey Wanless return. He’s going to be kind of our field general, which is what I’m going to call him because he’s going to be in the midfield and sort of working the ball along, helping on defense, distributing the ball on offense and finishing as needed on the front line. He’s really embraced that leadership role and has almost turned into a senior assistant, so to speak, where he might take some of the younger guys who’ve never played before and show them a couple things while I’m working on another drill over on the other end of the field. He’s been a great asset to our team since coming back.

On the offensive side, just to kind of round out each side, I’m really excited about a couple of younger guys that are coming in. That includes Aaron Kreiss; he’s a German exchange student. He’s coming to us as a sophomore and he’ll be playing some striker and some midfield. He’ll kind of float because he’s that good with the ball on his feet. He has a lot of skill. He’s a good finisher, good with the ball and just does a great job.

What should fans be excited about in the Knights’ first season in two years?

You’re going to see energy, regardless of what the scoreboard says, and you’re going to see a lot of excitement from our guys and you’re going to see us getting better with each game, each practice and each day. And I think with restarting a program from almost scratch with only two returners out of 15, I think that’s all you can ask for in year one. And if we get the results that we want, then fantastic, whether that be a conference championship or we’re in contention all year, that’s great, but I think you’re going to see the energy and the want-to from these guys. That never-give-up attitude and you’re going to see that each and every day and, hopefully, we get better each and every day. You’re just going to see the results come as we keep putting those aspects forward.

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