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MIDDLE SCHOOL FOOTBALL: Q&A with Veterans Memorial coach Dante English
Veterans Middle
Veterans Memorial running back SanCarlos Rollins is a player coach Dante English says is one to watch, both now and in the future. -photo by Matthew Grimes

COVINGTON, Ga. — Veteran’s Memorial head coach Dante English has been with the team for five seasons now and has seen quite a bit as the middle school program’s head man, including watching several ultra-talented young athletes begin to create recruiting buzz for themselves before even reaching high school. 

The News’ Daniel Richardson stopped by during a team practice – on a particularly hot day – and the two spoke about possible must-watch middle school talent, what he hopes to see out of his team this season and more. 

Daniel Richardson: With this particular group, which players should Newton County have their eyes on for now and the future?

Dante English: “The community should have their eyes on [eighth grader] Bryson Craft, SanCarlos Rollins, Aveon Dyer and [eighth grader] DeCorey Sinkfield.”

DR: How important is for those eighth-graders to come into the year with the proper mindset with high school being the next level for them?

DE: “It's very important to me because Sinkfield [has] been with me. Bryson Craft [has] been with me throughout the years I've been at Veteran’s Memorial. For three years, I have seen their growth. They've been working hard this summer. [They’ve shown] attitude changes and [their] leadership qualities have shown. And it's just been them overall doing a good job. I'm [excited] to see what comes out of this eighth-grade year for them.”

DR: With this being your fifth season as head coach at Veterans Memorial, what is this year’s team theme, or what have you seen out of this year’s roster?

DE: “What I see out of this group is a lot of talent. But the most important thing that I see is leadership. Leadership to me is very important. Without leadership, I don't think you have a team. And what these guys have shown me is that they're going to be true to Veterans, and not only are they good football players, they are great as student-athletes. Out of all the guys I named [earlier], two or three are on the honor roll. I also have Ethan Huntsinger. He's one of my injured players, but he's been with me throughout the last three years. I'm very impressed with his knowledge of the game. He's injured right now, but he'll be back soon. But definitely not just football, but the most important thing to me is academics.”

DR: Sticking with Huntsinger a bit, what is the injury that he’s dealing with?

DE: “The injury is his lower back. He’s been practicing with me and we’ve been conditioning, but he's been having lower back problems. [Ethan’s] been going to get x-rays and stuff, and his mom -- she's been giving me updates on it.”

DR: Obviously, at any level, the team structure is largely dependent on player qualities that aren’t always quantified with numbers. So what are some of the intangibles that are important for a middle school team?

DE: “The intangibles I’m looking for in this team are the camaraderie and the chemistry. I’m going to always say leadership, but the chemistry is the most important thing to me because if the chemistry is not there, then the team is not there.”

DR: As a staff and as a team, what are some of the ways that you have gone about building that team chemistry?

DE: “Team bonding we have sleepovers. Me and my guys we hang out and we go to different events. We do paintball and we might hit a movie theater. I have several people that have come and talked to the team about sportsmanship and teamwork – things like that. I go sit in the classroom with the guys. When I have my pre-planning in school and I have a break, I go sit in their [classrooms] and I let the guys know that I'm here for you as a family. Family is the most important thing, so you should be here for your brother on your left-hand side and your right-hand side.” (Stop here if space becomes an issue).

DR: That being said, why should those things you mentioned be pinned down and mastered at this stage specifically?

DE: “I used to coach the offensive line at Lithonia High School. I then came down here to Newton County, and was exposed to the middle school level. And what I’ve seen is this level right here is very critical, because at seventh and eighth grade, you're learning the fundamentals, the really important fundamentals of football. And it's preparing you for high school because when you go to high school, coaches look for offensive stance. Coaches look for can the [players on] defense understand and recognize offense? Can offense recognize the defense? It’s just the little things to me. That's the most important thing. Because if you take care of little things, the bigger picture will come.”

DR: So taking all of those things into account, and with you being well into summer practice before the start of the season, where are the areas you’ve seen the most improvement out of this team?

DE: “The biggest area I have seen thus far has been their conditioning and working out. I think we got a ways to go, but we have improved a big deal in that area. I have an offensive lineman who’s been with me the last three years, for example, in Jonathan Crockett. When I first met the kid he was about 300 pounds. Now he’s dropped down to about 280 pounds. His attitude has changed and he’s been working hard. Out of all of the players I'm really happy for him, because he's a player that came in and could hardly walk. He has shown the coaches and the team there is no quit in him. And he's shown up to practice every day since I've been here.”

DR: What’s your outlook for the season with this particular team?

DE: “My outlook on the season -- I never guarantee wins but I prepare my team to be well-conditioned and be competitive. As long as you are competitive, I tell my guys all the time, you never can predict the score or you can't say ‘I'm going to win this or, I'm going to win that.’ But what you can do is show people effort. And if you have that effort and you show it on the field, everything will take care of itself. But if you don't show the effort, you can talk all you want to, but that goes out the door. Effort is the key; if you show the effort and you’re competitive, that's all I ask for.”