Stephenson steps up to guide Rockets

Friday, June 1, 2018
Forrest Athletic Director Scott Delk (left) congratulates the Rockets’ new head coach Eli Stephenson.
Tribune photos by Anthony S. Puca

After the unexpected announcement of Forrest football head coach Brent John’s resignation two weeks ago to spend more time with his family, defensive coordinator Eli Stephenson stepped up to the plate on Tuesday when he accepted the position to guide the Rockets.

“It’s a great opportunity to become the Forrest football head coach,” Stephenson said. “I’m ready for the new challenge and the step-up in my career.”

Stephenson was born in Bethpage and went to Westmoreland High School before attending Cumberland University.

After a three-year coaching stint at Red Boiling Springs, Stephenson came to Chapel Hill as a defensive assistant to Matt Kriesky, who lasted two years at Forrest before taking the head coach position at Centennial.

Johns took over after Kriesky’s departure and Stephenson moved up to the defensive coordinator position and the unit held firm as the Rockets went 11-2, claimed their second region title in a row, and advanced to the state quarterfinals for the first time in school history.

Forrest faltered last season as they posted a 4-7 record to finish below .500 for the first time since 2005, but Stephenson is ready to guide the Rockets back to the top with a recipe that has held true.

“First we are going to play great defense, we are going to run the ball, play great special teams, and win the turnover battle,” Stephenson said. “It’s gonna take hard work, being disciplined, and playing smart football.”

“We are just going to play the Forrest way, play hard-nosed football and play smart.”

Stephenson was one of the most surprised when he heard of Johns’ resignation last week, but is ready for the challenge and is intent on getting the Rockets back to their winning ways.

“I was surprised and I think everybody in the community was surprised,” Stephenson said. “Coach Johns was great, he taught me a lot, but the main thing he taught me was organizational skills and always be prepared for practice”.

Stephenson will take over the offensive coordinator duties for the Rockets this season and has not yet named a new defensive coordinator from a coaching staff that still has one opening to fill.

Eli Stephenson talks defensive strategy with the coaching staff during the Rockets’ game at Columbia Academy last season.

The 2018 schedule will not be an easy navigation for Stephenson as the Rockets face a tough gauntlet of road games at BGA, Fayetteville, Summertown, Lewis County, and Loretto.

“That is a tough task,” Stephenson said. “But, as a coach and when I was a player I enjoyed the road trips because there is no downtime in between, your always moving….you’re on a mission and it is a businessman mentality, that’s all it is.”

Forrest hosts Eagleville, Columbia Academy, Watertown, Cascade, and Community at Murrey E. Holton Field in Chapel Hill and their off week is October 12, coming in between the Loretto and Cascade matchups.

Stephenson talked about his outlook for next season, saying, “I think we have a shot in every game we play, we are on the road the first two games (BGA, Fayetteville) and then we are back home for the big region rivalry game versus Eagleville, so we just have to take it one game at a time and the first one is BGA and we will get ready for them.”

Stephenson has been in Chapel Hill five years and is well aware of the great community support the Rockets receive.

“It will be great for the community to support us anyway they can and if the community supports you that means you are doing a successful job with your program,” Stephenson said. “There has been a lot of people that have congratulated me for getting this job and that makes me feel pretty good and I know they can congratulate me now, but I have to get the job done.”

The Rockets return a bevy of solid players this season and Stephenson has a lot of confidence in his squad as he stated, “I know these boys are going to work hard and compete in everything we do, we just have to get over a couple of hurdles.”