It was a hard time. The 2015 football season hadn’t even begun, but the Bryant Hornets had already faced the kind of adversity that no one in high school should ever have to face. A classmate, a teammate, a brother, a promising 6-3, 310-pound sophomore lineman named Ray Davis, after working hard all summer to get ready for the fall, died tragically.
The team dedicated their Salt Bowl effort to him. Before a crowd that broke the state record for attendance at a high school football game, the Hornets took care of the “unfinished business” that stemmed from the 14-14 tie in the game in 2014, with a 37-13 victory over the rival Benton Panthers.
Amid the celebration, after the team had lifted the Salt Bowl trophy in triumph and the seniors had posed for their traditional picture with head coach Paul Calley, senior tackle Cole Fritschen was walking across the field in the general direction of the locker room when he met Davis’ mother.
“She came up to me and she just had this amazing look on her face,” Fritschen recalled. “She came and gave me the biggest hug. I’ll always remember that hug for the rest of my life. I was so proud of our accomplishment, that we won that game for her baby boy.”
That incident provides an insight into the heart of the Hornets’ 6-5, 315-pound Fritschen, the son of Tim and Beth Smith and John and Mitzi Fritschen. That’s what he said he would remember most about his senior season, a season in which the Hornets went 9-2 overall and 6-1 in the 7A/6A-Central Conference and came achingly close to knocking off the ultimate State champion Fayetteville Bulldogs in the second round of the playoffs; a season in which Fritschen and his fellow offensive linemen led the way for a school-record 2,750 yards rushing.
On National Signing Day, Wednesday, Feb. 3, Fritschen officially signed to take that size and talent along with that heart to Arkansas Tech University in Russellville to continue his education and his football career.
Fritschen and 6-7, 315-pound teammate Brycen Waddle were moved all season by Calley and offensive coordinator Lance Parker, to match up against the opposition’s biggest defensive linemen. They honed their abilities by working in practice sessions against two of Wednesday’s other Bryant college signees, Cameron Murray and Mario Waits.
“Cole is a big-bodied offensive lineman who only had a year starting under his belt,” Parker said. “He matured so much as the year went on. As he gets stronger and more used to one position and not moving around as much, I think he’s going to be a quick guy who’s very good at pass blocking, very good at pulling.
“He can do it all as a lineman,” the coach emphasized. “I think his best football is ahead of him.”
“My sophomore year, I wasn’t very good,” Fritschen admitted. “I didn’t know the offense. I was very lazy.”
Parker remembered Cole expressing his frustration. “In his younger days, we were trying to toughen Cole up a bit and I think he said he wanted to slash my tires one day.
“But he toughened up,” the coach asserted. “We knew how good a player he could be. He proved that.”
But it wasn’t without some adversity.
“In my junior year, I finally had a shot to start but I got a staff infection in my leg that left me out all season,” Fritschen recounted. “After the staff infection, I kind of got depressed.
“I knew I had to bounce back so I hit the weights, hit the gym,” he continued. “I came back in the off-season and did really well and ended up starting for the Hornets my senior year. And we had a really good season. This was probably the best season I’ve ever been around. These are my brothers.”
“He did a great job for us this year,” Parker said. “As an offensive lineman, you don’t get lots of stats. Your success is defined by how well the group does. I can personally say that, not only Cole, but the entire offensive line, was one of the best units we ever had.”
Referring to the team’s record rushing total, the coach added, “That sticks out. That’s very difficult to do. We have very good running backs. I don’t want to take anything away from them but those guys were usually running five yards before they ever got touched and that’s because of the offensive line and Cole in particular.
“We put a lot on Cole,” he allowed. “He was not only our left tackle but he was in charge of remembering the assignments of every other spot on the line in case somebody got hurt.
“And, much to the delight of his teammates,” Parker quipped, “he would forget where he was at sometimes. They would definitely let him know.”
Initially, Arkansas Tech wasn’t in the picture as a college destination for Fritschen.
“I started out getting recruited by Henderson and a couple of out-of-state schools,” he said. “Then, one day, I got a call to go to the office and Arkansas Tech was there. They said they’d been looking at me all year and that I was one of their top prospects.
“So I took by official (visit) and when I went there, it really was nice,” he continued. “The coaches were nice. The morals were really good. The football team had something going for them. I saw they had like the biggest turnaround offense in the conference this year and their O.C. (offensive coordinator) — they’re going somewhere and I just felt that Arkansas Tech was the place for me. I felt more comfortable in that environment. So that’s why I chose Arkansas Tech.”
It didn’t hurt that a former Hornet offensive lineman, Ian Shuttleworth, who will be a senior this fall, showed him around.
“He was my host,” Fritschen said. “We hung out for a while and he kind of told me about how practice was, just how they did things around there and how everything was. We talked all night and I knew I had decided to go to Tech.
Asked what the coaches told him, Fritschen related, “The plan is to see how I do in fall camp and, hopefully, I won’t redshirt and I’ll play as a true freshman. They said they thought I might stay at offensive tackle or move to guard.
“I want to represent B-town in a good way and go to a school that’s going to succeed and do well,” he concluded.