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Canton puts his own stamp on Wolves’ football team
It is election season and the discussion often fell along partisan lines. Except the top issue was not healthcare or the federal deficit, but South Kitsap football.
When Eric Canton was named as D.J. Sigurdson's successor in May, supporters lauded the stay-the-course decision. Canton will be only the school's third coach in 39 seasons when he takes his position on the sideline during tonight's opener against Kentridge.
A 1986 graduate who was an All-American defensive back at South for coach Ed Fisher and also served as an assistant for a decade under Sigurdson, many viewed Canton's selection as a continuation of the principles and traditions that have guided the program.
That is where the detractors come in. While the Wolves set a state record with 23 consecutive state-playoff appearances beginning in 1980, some felt the I-formation scheme that has been a South staple for decades had grown stagnant. The Wolves only advanced to the state playoffs twice in the last nine seasons and some expressed a desire to see an outsider’s perspective.
But senior fullback Bryce Broome cautions that both sides might be surprised.
"It will be a big change," he said. "The film we're giving out is not us at all."
Canton, 45, said that he has matured since he was Bremerton’s coach from 1996-98. He had a 3-24 record with the Knights.
"I was a lot more high-strung and not as wise," he said following his hire. "When you're communicating with your players, you don’t have to rant and rave."
But Canton was mum on what changes he would make with the exception of "terminology" adjustments and forgoing the annual summer camp at Eastern Washington University. Canton even dons a straw hat during practices just as Sigurdson did.
That is where many of the similarities ended, though. Senior inside linebacker Michael Beard said both coaches have "father figure" and lovable, but firm personas. One look at the depth chart hanging from the coaches’ office, Beard noted, is where the differences are detailed.
Canton eliminated the tight end in his offense in lieu of going with a three-receiver set. That does not mean South will transition from "Ground D.J." "to "Air Eric," though. Canton hinted that it might be more of the same when he said he was hopeful that running backs Kelikuewa Kalima and Adam Gascoyne each could run for 1,000 yards.
Broome sees a different scenario unfolding.
"I think we're going to throw the ball more," he said. "I think it fits the team more."
Canton said he is keeping an open mind.
"It's going to depend on what teams give us," he said.
Or what his roster provides. Even in the college ranks, coaches struggle to find talented interior defensive linemen. The University of Washington and Washington State both are switching from 4-3 to 3-4 schemes this season for that reason. For Canton, who cannot recruit his own talent, the switch makes even more sense.
Theoretically, the change should require the larger defensive linemen — Canton said each of the three starters are at least 6 foot 3 — to take on blockers while the smaller linebackers are freed up to rush the passer.
Beard likes the new scheme.
"It's more of an attacking defense," he said.
The changes mark a stark contrast to Sigurdson, who took over a program in 1997 just three years removed from a state championship.
"I didn't want to experiment with different stuff," he said in April, adding that transitioning to a different scheme would have created a two-year disruption.
"I inherited something that was so good that it wasn't a real priority for me to change it."
That included many of the program's traditions, starting with maintaining the black plaques with names inscribed in gold that rest behind glass cases just outside of the boys locker room at South.
They date back to the school's first year in 1921 when coach Royal Gunn was listed along with seven graduates.
Unlike many members of his coaching staff, Sigurdson had no ties to the area when he was hired as an assistant by Fisher in 1993. But Sigurdson, a graduate of Evergreen High School in Seattle, embraced the program's history.
Several of the program's traditions started under Fisher, including the mirror that frequently is displayed before games in the locker room, which list some of the most significant wins in school history. Sigurdson said he believes it began in 1981 when the Wolves were a heavy underdog against Mount Tahoma and the "kids were asked to look at the man in the mirror" to determine what they needed to do to win the game. South prevailed 19-7 en route to its first 10-win season in program history.
There also are the white 4- by 8-inch boards made with three-quarters-inch plywood that denote each of the Wolves' league championships up to 2002. Each lines the fence around the track before games at Joe Knowles Stadium. Sigurdson said recent graduates often ask about adding boards for more recent Narrows League titles, such as 2009, but he said there have been complications with maintaining a design consistent with the older boards.
Sigurdson continued other Fisher traditions, including gold jerseys in practice for starters, hashmarks, which are rated in several ways on offense, defense and special teams, but roughly are awarded for physical, legal hits, and several weight and time tests.
Canton already has implemented some of those, such as hashmarks, but cautions that maintaining all of them could be daunting — and unnecessary. While the state championship board is significant, he said it might make more sense to have one separate board that simply lists all of the school’s league championships. Other traditions might disappear altogether.
"It's something that definitely is on your shoulders," Canton said. "It just adds to the pressure."
He said many athletes are more concerned about the Wolves' next opponent, which he appreciates.
"I haven't had one kid ask about the hashmarks board," Canton said. "So many of these kids weren't around and don't care about old guys like me."
After all, it is a new era.