On The Line: Wilmington Tigers Train for Third Season

BY Jules Norwood

Wilmington’s minor league football team the Wilmington Tigers is gearing up for its third season of competition in the Mason-Dixon Football League and William Murphy the new head coach is looking to take the team’s performance to a new level.

“I want to have a football team that can compete with anybody at this level ” Murphy says and to that end he has tossed out last year’s playbook and warned his players that everyone will have to earn his spot on the team.

“Nothing is going to be given to anybody regardless of how good they were last year ” he says. “Last year doesn’t mean anything because I wasn’t the coach last year.”

That means anybody in the area has a chance to compete for a spot on the roster too. The coaching staff would like to start the season with a roster of 50 players and offensive coordinator Brandon Johnson says they will be evaluating talent until the first week of July. The team’s biggest need is linemen.

“We need some big guys who can help us dominate the line of scrimmage ” Johnson says. “In the past we have focused more on the run but this year we’ve added a few new weapons to our arsenal to make things more exciting for the fans and to confuse the opposition.”

Two open tryouts were held earlier in the year to give the coaches an opportunity to evaluate the talents of a crop of Tiger hopefuls before starting practice for the season but the roster won’t be finalized until the coaches are happy with it.

“There is still time for that person that feels they’ve got what it takes to be a Wilmington Tiger ” he says.

But don’t think it will be easy — Murphy is looking for players who will give 100-percent effort.

“It’s hard work ” he says. “I’m a physical fitness freak. You have to get in shape to play. You can’t come today and play tomorrow; you have to do the routine.”

Murphy wants to prove that the Wilmington area is rich with talented football players.

“We have the talent — we just have to find it ” he says.

Last year’s team went 3-5-1 in the regular season and lost to Greensboro’s Carolina Heat in the first round of the playoffs but entertained the fans with a high-powered offense that racked up a lot of points. This year Johnson and Lamont Jackson will work to continue the team’s success on offense while defensive coordinators Jeremy Buck and Randy Johnson will bring new focus to the defensive side of the ball in an effort to improve the overall record.

For the fans home games provide an opportunity to watch local athletes showcase their talents. The players on the team are in it for the love of the game and for the chance to perform in front of a local audience he says. Some may even have a chance to be noticed by scouts from colleges arena football teams (a professional league of 8-men teams playing fast-paced games on smaller indoor fields) and even the NFL.

“We have some guys that still have college eligibility who might be scouted when we’re playing ” Murphy says. “We had some guys last year who were offered scholarships to try out for college teams.”

Terry Shipman last year’s starting fullback plays for the simple reason that he enjoys the game.

“It’s something I’ve been doing all my life ” he says. “I enjoy football and I like being around the people and working with other athletes.”

Shipman played his first year with the Tigers last year but has been playing for minor league teams in the Wilmington area for the last seven years. When he’s not wearing pads he works for a construction supply company during the day and as a security guard at night.

“I got involved with the team through some of the other players and coaches and it means a lot to be able to go out and play and have people come to watch ” he says. “They’ve got their eyes on you and to see the kids out there smiling and watching it means a lot.”

Jason Chapman has played center for the Tigers since the team’s inaugural season in 2005 and he’s glad for the opportunity to play competitive football. The players on the team enjoy working together on the field and hanging out afterward.

They also get the chance to compete against players from nearby cities including Jacksonville Fayetteville and New Bern. The short driving distances allow greater fan participation.

“The rivalries between these guys go back to high school so it can be a lot of fun ” Murphy adds.

The players come from a variety of backgrounds but most played for their school football teams.

“Right now our players range in age from 20 to 36 ” says Johnson. “Some were recruited and others were walk-ons. We have UNCW students and former high school and college standouts. There are firemen members of the sheriff’s department local business owners husbands and fathers.”

All of that slips away when the team takes the field at Legion Stadium on Saturday evenings and the crack of pads colliding shouted play calls and the cheers of the crowd fill the air.

The games have a family atmosphere with events food and beverages geared toward both adults and youth. Each home game has a unique game day theme with sponsors giveaways and autograph sessions. General admission for home games at Legion Stadium costs $5.

This year the fans will have the opportunity to choose a name for the Tigers’ mascot which will be announced at the third home game.

The 2007 regular season runs from July through September. The Tigers face the difficult task of playing their first three games on the road this year before returning to Legion Stadium for a home game against the Virginia Ravens on Aug. 4.

The Tigers’ 10-game schedule also features home games against the Carolina Heat the Virginia Storm the Jacksonville Raiders and the New Bern Grizzlies. The rest of the schedule consists of away games against the Storm Raiders and Grizzlies as well as the Virginia Crusaders and the Fayetteville Ruff Riders. The Mason-Dixon Football League playoffs begin Oct. 6.

The team has a single goal for the 2007 season says Jamelle Smith who has been with the team since he spotted a flyer advertising tryouts for its first season. Smith has played a variety of positions including cornerback and linebacker.

“We’re looking for the championship ” he says. “We have a lot of talented receivers and running backs and the defense is going to be big this year as well.”