In the midst of a new era for Cedar Ridge athletics, the school’s football program now finds itself back at square one.

Cedar Ridge Athletic Director Andy Simmons and new football coach Torrean Hinton have confirmed that the Red Wolves won’t field a varsity football team in 2021. Instead, Cedar Ridge will have a junior varsity squad.

A formal schedule, including Homecoming and Senior Night activities, will be released as soon as other team’s junior varsity availability is known.

The Red Wolves went 0-6 last spring. With students returning to class and Cedar Ridge going into the new Central Carolina Conference, there was hope within the football program that better times were ahead. Instead, Cory Lea left as head coach on July 5 after only 16 months on the job. Hinton, who was the interim coach of the Red Wolves in 2019 after Antonio King gave notice on the first day of practice to become an assistant at North Carolina Central, accepted the offer to return as Cedar Ridge’s permanent head coach two weeks ago.

Before Hinton returned, Cedar Ridge athletic officials started notifying other Central Carolina Conference schools that the team was lacking in numbers. Several players who started during the shortened season in March have transferred to other schools across the area this summer, including the starting quarterback from last spring’s opener. Officials and administrators reached out to other Cedar Ridge athletes from various sports about interest in playing football. When around 15-to-20 players showed up to the first day of practice on Monday, Hinton realized he had to cut bait for this year.

Before he accepted the offer to return to Cedar Ridge last month, Hinton says he understood not playing a varsity schedule was a possibility.

“The hope was there that we would have enough players,” Hinton said. “I kept my ear close to what was going on. I knew that they had only about 12 kids in the weight room. So I knew what I was walking into as far as numbers go. It’s an uphill battle, but it’s one that I welcome.”

It’s a problem that has become more prevalent across Orange and Durham Counties in recent years. Last spring, Hinton saw it firsthand at Riverside, a school with an average daily membership of 1,852, according to figures from the North Carolina High School Athletic Association during the 2019-2020 academic year. Yet the Pirates had to forfeit its first three games of the 2021 spring season due to a lack of players.

This marks the second time in four years that Cedar Ridge hasn’t fielded a varsity football team. As is the case now, a lack of participation was the reason. Following spring practice workouts in 2018, then-Cedar Ridge Head Coach Scott Loosemoore updated the school’s administration that player turnout had sunk and was ill-prepared to face a varsity schedule that included two 4A teams. The final decision to not field a varsity team came from the Orange County School District via a statement released on Twitter. It led to an angry town hall meeting with coaches, players, parents and staff at the Cedar Ridge school cafeteria a week later, which was curiously scheduled at the same time the Orange County School Board met at Gravelly Hill Middle School.

By the time the saga ended, Loosemore, who had not served in a full-time position at Cedar Ridge despite leading the school to its last winning season in 2016, had left for an assistant’s job at Scotland County.

In addition to Cedar Ridge, Chapel Hill didn’t have enough players to field a squad in 2018. East Chapel Hill didn’t have a varsity team in 2017 or last spring. This year, they plan on playing independently against 2A and 1A teams.

When Cedar Ridge went through its first year without varsity football, five players were granted permission by the Orange County School Board to transfer from Cedar Ridge to Orange in order to continue playing football. Now, most of the seniors who wanted to leave already have.

There are two Cedar Ridge seniors, however, who are staying, providing the ultimate example of staying true to a program during its nadir. But they also can’t play this season because seniors aren’t allowed to play junior varsity.

So Jake Mergenthal and Travis Delph will remain on the team as de facto assistant coaches. In lieu of playing their senior seasons, they will serve as “mentors” (the official title).

“They were captains of this football team,” Hinton said. “They have chosen to stay and coach. That’s very fortunate for us because we still have senior leadership on this football team. They’ve come to practice every day. They’re moving (tackling) dummies. They’re enthused about it.”

Hinton hopes to be a steady and reliable presence that can bring glory back to a team that was one win away from playing for the 2-AA State Championship in 2011. He will be the Red Wolves sixth head coach since 2018, including his own interim stint in 2019. In fact, Hinton was the last coach to lead Cedar Ridge to a win on the varsity level.

On Wednesday afternoon, Orange announced it had replaced Cedar Ridge on its slate by scheduling a second game against new conference rival Walter Williams. The Panthers will travel to Burlington to play the Bulldogs in a non conference game on October 22, in addition to their regularly scheduled Central Carolina Conference matchup on September 24 in Hillsborough.

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