Friday night lights — the tradition continues

Aug. 23, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Baseball, at least to baseball fans, is the national pastime. But when it comes to a sport that defines and unites a community, nothing ranks higher than high school sports, and most specifically, football under the lights on Fridays all over the country.

Nearly 200 high school football contests will be played in small stadiums around North Carolina as the regular season kicks off tonight.

For Lee County's two high school teams, both begin their seasons on the road — Lee County will travel to South Carolina to play at Spartanburg Christian, while Southern Lee visits Western Harnett. Read about this week's area high school games in today's sports section.

Competitively, tonight is the start of a four-month effort to crown state champs. Even for the squads without the best records, 11 games during the next 12 weeks make a team-building educational lesson like no other, and that's not even considering two-a-days, the weight room, spring conditioning, team camps and constructive criticism from coaches.

The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) counts 14,048 schools played 11-man football in 2012. More than 1.1 million students played some type (11-man, 8-man, etc.) of football last school year. Track and field and basketball, when combining the boys and girls numbers, are close to football, but football is number one. Overall, more than 7.7 million students play one or more high school sports.

Attendance figures prove what high school sports mean to communities. They also show some of why sports give kids experience with pressure, maturity and responsibility.

The main objectives of scholastic sports isn't, or at least shouldn't be, about developing as many pro athletes as possible. However, as Aaron Mellette and Dennis Godfrey are proving, when pro aspirations lead to local kids getting a shot at the big leagues, it's outstanding for the athletes and it's another form of community pride.

In 2011, NFHS released a survey that estimated nearly three times as many spectators turned out for high school football, boys basketball and girls basketball games as collegiate and professional events in the same sports in 2009-10. The same estimate found more than 500 million fans attended high school sports when accounting for the top 16 sports by participation.

In the case of Friday night football in particular, the stage for the marching bands, cheerleaders, concession stands, meeting neighbors and letting younger kids expend some energy outside the house before the weekend are all popular reasons to come out to a game. If the hometown team wins, that's nice, too.

Every coach wants to win. Every player's goal is the state championship.

Following a preseason scrimmage last week, Western Harnett head coach Larry Brock spoke about his players sticking together as a team and wanting them to prove their hard work pays off.

Southern Lee head coach Don Simon spoke about the impressive amount of learning and studying his new players have done as players get used to a new coach and vice-versa. He also spoke about forming leaders and young men working to improve after going through a rough season last fall.

Lee County head coach Burton Cates said he is looking forward to seeing how his Yellow Jackets, with almost entirely new starting lineups entering the season, respond to pressure and adversity. All 14,000-plus football teams have players stepping up into larger roles and responsibilities, but Cates's squad has the test of doing it practically as a team.

Touchdowns and victories are exciting. Watching students represent themselves, teams, schools and communities to the best of their ability is why Friday nights are tradition.