CROWELLS CROSSROADS — An arterial stretch of government mule will surely take you there, through blink-and-miss Enfield, along McDaniel Street, past the green swamp and finally, to N.C. Highway 481 East — where a draft of unseasonably warm October air shakes the journey onward.

Almost there, kinda-sorta.

The drive extends, longer than you recall — past harvests framed by leaning pines and a sports car, awkwardly marooned on a pocket-sized island that fronts someone’s home — to Road 125, where the all-seasons ball coach works.

He’s agreed to a 3 p.m. meeting, and being late isn’t an option.


All the Wrong Noise

Antione Alston of Southeast Collegiate Prep Academy stands in the gym, decked in a green-and-gold top, cutoff sweats and Crocs, talking about what was.

His beard, another tradition, is also gone — but first things first.

“My seniors,” he said, the overhead lights drowning his words. “What are they gonna miss? You know, their last senior year, in the gym, packed … homecoming, playing against Northwest, their rival — you know, that’s more what I think about, and you know, my heart goes out to them … I just keep praying.”

And with good reason, as his winter haunt — usually a mix of Tar Roanoke 1A hoops during the week and community open-run on the weekends — is no more right now, stopped cold by a viral saga that seems to want for no end.

Along both sidelines, the short-court goals remain up, hanging over the floor at 45 degrees — a bit of mockery, really, that makes Alston bristle.

“March 11,” he said of their dangle, taken up by mechanical grind when public schools across the state were closed by Gov. Roy Cooper. “You want me to give you the exact date.”

And with that utterance, Alston’s frustration with the circumstance is abundantly clear.

Such is often the case for giving types, though, who usually aren’t big fans of their service to others being interrupted.


Coach’s Web Gems

Walking to his spring pledge is work-ish for Alston, who talks while cradling his 18-month-old son, Garrett, in alternating arms.

The topic? Southeast, baby — just like always — and how, as a youngster with promise, the Trojan community made him feel one with the school long before he ever donned anything green and old-gold.

It’s a brand-loyalty dynamic that, sadly, has endured changed.

“Now these kids, these days, they don’t know where they’re going to go to high school,” Alston said, sounding every bit the Dad. “Some of them say, ‘I’m going to Rocky Mount Prep, some of them say, I’m going to Tarboro, some of them say, I’m going to North Eastern Carolina Prep.’ ”

He pauses.

“Southeast was the school, though,” Alston said, his baseball diamond just around a stretch of weepy trees. “It was it. I didn’t know another school.”

Which is perhaps why, when asked to qualify a good day between the lines of SCP’s least-popular men’s sport, Alston’s reply stays in character.

“I think our kids learn more in baseball than any other sport, because we don’t have a little league around here,” he said, while also speaking to the prospect of defining expectations.

“Every day is a success to me, to be honest with you,” Alston waxed. “Because a day where I’ve got kids that’s learning, that’s what it’s all about.”

Ah, sharing.

Such is the case for giving types, though, who understand that how-to always comes before how-you-do.


Hear Me Now

Nothing says I-love-you more these days than a densely-populated group chat, and yes, Alston’s 2020-2021 gridiron troupe has one.

Trojan Rebirth, it’s called, just in case you were wondering.

“Last year, we went 1-10,” the coach said, his eyes periodically browsing the water-tower end of Kenneth E. Turnage Stadium. ”Not to speak bad about anybody, but I think a lot of people would’ve probably gave up — not wanting to come back."

He pauses.

“To go 1-10?” Alston asked. “But to me, I looked at it as a challenge. How do I get these guys to believe? How do I get them to keep coming to practice every day, when everything looks like it’s going down — downhill. I was just so eager.”

And now, with respect to his many day-jobs, so timed-out, save the digital format he uses to convey program particulars to his players.

Where there’s a will, the old maxim goes, there must be a way.

Minutes later, after slipping back through the football gate with his son and inching toward campus, the beard — a manicured, James Harden-styled drape to span all seasons — is at last addressed.

“Just, I felt like I needed a change,” Alston said of the veil, a staple of his sideline aspect for many years. “For one, I didn’t even like the beard — I just did it for my girlfriend.”

And with that utterance, the rest of Antione Alston’s picture — already sharp in the ways and means of giving without limit to others — racks even greater focus.

All he needs now is a season, or the hint of one, to keep his goodwill streak alive.