When Randy Raper accepted the coaching job at Northern Nash, many people were shocked. It was a puzzling move on the outside: Raper, then the coach of Wilson Hunt, the best program in the Big East Conference, gave it up to become the coach of arguably the worst program in the league.
Hunt went to the Eastern Regional Final three years in a row – and lost each time to Northern Guilford – from 2010-12. Three good Warriors teams all suffered the same fate, and it left Raper exasperated.
“You really put your heart and soul into it, and those last three years at Hunt especially, I really put everything – I almost shunned my family,” Raper said. “I did everything. I knew we had a chance to be pretty good and I really put my heart and soul into it. We fell short at the same darn time against the same team, and it just drained me.”
After graduating from college in 1981, Raper joined Hunt’s coaching staff the following fall. He remained there for 32 years, 22 of them as the head coach. During his tenure, the Warriors’ conference changed. Players graduated and new ones came in. The way the players dressed changed and so did the music they liked.
But two things never changed.
Hunt always was a family, and that family usually produced a good football team.
“Our atmosphere at Hunt, it was almost like a big family,” Raper said. “You hear all that all the time in all aspects of sports, but I can truly say at Hunt it was a family atmosphere.”
So after 32 years in the same spot, Raper made a change, and he did so in part because he knew Hunt’s community would keep the program in good shape.
He wanted to build the same type of program somewhere that needed it.
“I was at the point where I was almost taking it for granted,” Raper said. “... I needed something different.”
The new challenge was awakening a program that had lost touch with a successful football past. Northern Nash made a brief resurgence under Mickey Crouch in 2010, but the Knights fell back to losing habits the past two seasons.
Raper remembers the intimidating Northern Nash home field from his days playing football at Wilson Fike, and though he acknowledges it won’t change overnight, he aims to return the Knights to football success.
He insists the Knights’ talent is on par with most of their competitors. The Knights must learn how to win off the field, he said, and that has been the program’s issue.
“We have a group here that isn’t any less talented than what I had at Hunt or anywhere else,” Raper said. “It’s a matter of them believing in themselves that they can do it, and right now, it’s a battle.”
But that battle is exactly what he sought when he left Hunt.
It has been far from easy so far. The Knights completely revamped their offense and defense – terminology included – and the team has made its fair share of missteps trying to learn on the fly.
Three good quarters against Wendell Corinth-Holders gave Raper the impression his offense can be explosive, but the Knights played apprehensively in the fourth quarter and lost, 32-26, in overtime.
Raper said his defense showed flashes against Elizabeth City Northeastern, but the Knights were outplayed completely in a 45-0 loss.
More challenges await – like tonight’s contest against five-straight 2-A state finalist Tarboro – and more missteps will come, but Raper encouraged fans to look at progress.
“I don’t know how many games we can win,” Raper said. “I don’t know if we can win any. But right now, from Week 1 to right now, this is two different football teams.”
What Raper wants to see is consistent growth, and he wants the Northern Nash community to see it with him.
For this season, it’s about more than the record to Raper.
“I wanted to bring something back to where all these people can be proud of what they’re associated with,” Raper said. “I’m proud to be here. I want these people to feel that same way.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or npiotrowicz @rmtelegram.com