Bringing Football to The High Country

By Jay Luster

07/17/2017

“Once you’ve seen an arena football game in person, you’re not going to miss another game if you have the opportunity to go.”
High Country Grizzlies Head Coach Josh Resignalo

On State Route 421, about an hour and half west of Winston-Salem. North Carolina is the small town of Boone. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Watauga County seat is also the location of Appalachian State University. On campus, is the 6200 seat arena called The George M. Holmes Convocation Center. The Holmes Center is used primarily for the Appalachian State Mountaineers NCAA Division 1 basketball, and volleyball teams. Another team calling the building home is a charter member of the National Arena League, The High Country Grizzlies. Boone itself is a town of 17,000 people, but when school is in session, the population swells to more than double that number. You would think a community that small would make it difficult for a team to garner enough support to survive, but that’s not the case. Head Coach of the Grizzlies Josh Resignalo said, “The team did a great job creating partnerships within the community. We had The Coaches Show, and all our games were replayed on cable TV on Friday night, so we have a good business model.” The real problem facing all brand-new teams is getting people to turn out for the games. Resignalo continued, “some of our games had around 2700 people, which is pretty good for a first-year team. The main owner, Donald Thompson, understands if you don’tbuild a business structure properly you’re not going to have a team. At the end of the day, the community supported us. We had around a hundred sponsors, so we’ve laid a good foundation to build the fan base.”

Boone, North Carolina

First-year sports teams, especially those in a new league, or with a game unfamiliar to the community will face a lot of growing pains. In the case of the Grizzlies, they won their debut game on the road, but then came home and lost a close one to the Lehigh Valley Steelhawks. Coach Res Said, “That first home game against Lehigh was a great game. We turned the ball over five times, but even with all those mistakes, and a couple of bad calls, we still had a chance to win the game on the last play. From a fan perspective, I thought it was a great show, good entertainment.” However, their next game was a blowout. The Dayton Wolfpack had stadium issues before the season began and became a road team. Road teams rarely win, and lopsided games have a way of suppressing near term fan enthusiasm. The Coach continued, “The next home game wasn’t what I thought it would be. We played Dayton, and we beat them 94-6. The fans who came liked it, but they were wondering if this was how it was going to be?” Still the team was 2-1 and seemingly on the right track. They lost their next couple of games t

Coach Resignalo

o the Columbus Lions, and Jacksonville Sharks, the two teams which would eventually make it to the NAL Championship game. While Jacksonville stifled their offense and tore their defense apart, neither Columbus, nor Lehigh Valley dominated the new team. The problem was the teams they were beating were terrible teams, and the teams they lost

to were the good teams which placed High Country right in the middle of the road. Resignalo joked, “Is it a good thing to be in the middle? Are we the best of the bad teams, or the last of the good teams?” Laughing, he said, “It’s like we’re the first loser.” While the coach does have a warm sense of humor and a down-to-earth perspective, he clearly is not satisfied with spotty on-field performance and lower than hoped-for attendance. With that in mind, the Coach is on a 36 stop talent search which will take him to some of the best college football areas in the country. He said, “There’s talent out there, and I intend to find it. Mobile Alabama is the first place I’m going. There are a lot good football players who come out of that area, but I’ve never had a Mobile Alabama player come to one of my tryouts, so I’m going there to find them.”

Along with aggressively pursuing new talent, Coach Resignalo is also working hard to hang on to the talent he had on the 2017 roster. One of his top priorities is bringing back Malachi Jones. The former Appalachian State receiver, was named the National Arena League’s rookie of the year. For a team which had uncertainty at quarterback, Jones had 66 catches for 685 yards and 16 touchdowns. He led the league in reception

NAL Rookie of the Year, Malachi Jones

s per game and ranked fifth in receiving touchdowns. Coach Res said, “As soon as we can begin signing players back I see us bringing back a good majority of our players, especially on the defense. My issue on defense is getting a good nucleus of DBs in there to stay put this season.” Last year, the position became a revolving door and in arena football where passing is the norm, and scoring happens fast, having the right guys on the back end is oftentimes the only difference between winning and losing. Resignalo continues, “ It’s not about finding the best DBs. It’s about finding the best group of DBs to play together because it’s all about communication.” Playing together and learning to communicate takes time and good coaching, and the Grizzlies Defensive Coordinator is Damien Daniels. Coach said, “he was a heck of a player, and he’s turned out to be a very good coach, but this was his biggest frustration. Damien still has the itch to play. If he can suit up and make the plays instead of busting someone’s head for them to make the plays, then just suit up and play, that’s my take on it.” He laughs, and says, “But we’ll see how that goes.” Having a coach on the back end who can still play would probably make a big difference in how the team functions. Also being pursued on defense is Brandon Sutton (33 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, and eight sacks) and Larry Ford (five sacks in just eight games).

On offense, nothing is set in stone partially because the NAL signing period is still ways off in the future, but also because the team doesn’t have a QB. The most capable guy on the roster was Stephen Panasuk. Despite the team not winning many games, Panasuk

Does Coach Daniels still have the itch to play?

put up good numbers and kept the team in games. However, his return is unlikely. The QB listed on the roster right now is journeyman Dennis Havrilla. He’s a good player, but has never completely locked down a starting job during his career. His real strength may be his experience at multiple positions. Having played quarterback, safety and place kicker during his career, he has proven to be a Swiss Army Knife with the kind of versatility every coach wants on his roster. Resignalo said, “Right now, now I don’t know what WR Daron Clark (23 returns for 453 yards, 40 catches for 554 yards and nine touchdowns) or FB Undra Hendrix (12 rushing touchdowns and 298 rushing yards) are going to do, of course I want them to come back. Clark is from the Atlanta area, and he does a lot of stuff on the side with music. He’s 32 years old and he can still play, but he’s getting to an age where you start thinking about what you’re going to do when football goes away. We’re also hopeful about Undra coming back.” Another position group that became a revolving door was the offensive line. If you remember the NAL Championship game and the pressure, Columbus QB Mason Espinosa was under and the dribbled snap that cost them the game, it’s hard to overemphasize the importance of this position group. He said, “We lost a couple of guys to IR, and our only experienced player was Justin Wells. He is an AFL vet. The other three guys had never played arena football. They came to the hotel, in Lehigh, Friday night, and we got them up to speed, and they played Saturday night.” Coach continued, “Their first time together was during the walk through, then we were taking snaps and going over the cadence in the hallway of the hotel. I never thought we’d be doing that, it was pretty funny. Obviously, there isn’t any bridge too far to cross to put a winning product on the field. Continuing, Coach Resignalo said, “We’re laying the foundation. Next year will be our second season, and I’m very positive we’re going to be competitive.” With a decent business model in place, all that’s left is getting the fans into the arena, He said, “If you’d never seen an arena game before, and most of our fans had not; you’re coming back, and the majority of them did. We’ve just got to get them in the doors to see that first game.”

The George M. Holmes Convocation Center. A beautiful building but somewhat less than optimum

While I never brought any of this up with the coach during our conversation, it is obvious, even to casual observers the team has some major obstacles to overcome, which might make it difficult to remain in Boone despite everyone’s best of intentions. The town itself has only 17,000 people, when school is in session, the population swells to 33,000, which means filling the stadium requires 1/6 of the town to show up each weekend during the season. It’s not impossible, but it is a stumbling block. Playing on Appalachian State’s campus means no alcohol sales in the stadium which, for better or worse, has a tendency to depress ticket sales. Moreover, there is the stadium itself. While the Holmes Center is a nice building, it wasn’t designed with arena sports like hockey or football in mind. The floor is actually a bit smaller than standard, which gives teams a little less room to operate, especially in the end zones. Furthermore, When the semester ends, 18,000 potential fans leave town, which coincides with the last half of the NAL season. This means, down the stretch just when the team needs the support from the fans the most, the town population halves. Even with all the obstacles strewn in the High Country Grizzlies path, don’t be surprised if former marine and Head Coach Josh Resignalo figure out how to adapt and overcome.