State of the Union
2011 may be banner year for high school football in county. But why?
by Aaron Garcia
By all indications, 2011 is shaping up to be one of the best high school football seasons Union County has seen. Last year, nine of the 11 public-school football programs qualified for the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs, and one, Porter Ridge, knocked on a title’s door by winning its first 14 games before falling in the Class 4A semifinals.
With the success came a slew of college recruiting attention, as several local athletes signed with major programs such as Duke (Monroe’s Jamison Crowder and Issac Blakney and Piedmont’s Lucas Fisher), South Carolina (Marvin Ridge’s K.J. Brent and Sun Valley’s Jody Fuller), Alabama (Marvin Ridge’s Vinny Sunseri), East Carolina (Piedmont’s Stewart Hinson) and Maryland (Parkwood’s Marcus Leak).
But even with those high-profile athletes now playing for their respective colleges, the county returns a wealth of talent that should uphold the high standard set last season. Add in the fact that the county has a new team in Metrolina Christian Academy – the county’s first private-school program – and the sport is sure to grow past its already-impressive level.
It’s been a substantial jump in a fairly short amount of time. Just five years ago, it was difficult to find a major-college prospect in the county, and few programs threatened to make substantial playoff runs. Until, that is, Sun Valley receiver Ray-Ray Davis became one of the nation’s most prized recruits (Davis signed with North Carolina in 2009). So how has the area become a hotbed of football talent in such a quick amount of time?
One of the more quantifiable reasons for the recent success is perhaps the easiest to pinpoint. Union County is one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, and with the growth has come a flood of willing athletes who have not only benefitted the football landscape but pretty much every other sport in the area as well.
“People are seeing there’s a real good quality of life in this county, and people are moving here,” said Marvin Ridge coach Scott Chadwick. “Successful people are moving here, and those successful people generally have kids that are successful.”
In the last 10 years alone, the county has added six new high schools in Weddington, Porter Ridge, Cuthbertson, Marvin Ridge, Union Academy and Central Academy. The bricks-and-mortar approach seems to fit Union County Public Schools’ recent population trends: Since the 2000-2001 school year, the number of public-school students in the county has swelled from 22,875 students to 39,900 in 2010-11.
“That’s what dictates players – new neighborhoods popping up, new kids moving in and those types of things,” added Sun Valley coach Scott Stein.
Impressively, the county has been able to handle the growth without having to turn kids away from the sport. Unlike many school districts, the Union County public high schools have one main middle school that they’re associated with, which effectively gives each varsity football coach in the area a feeder system from which he can directly draw players.
“We know who they were in sixth grade, we knew who they were in seventh grade,” Stein explained. “We’ve watched them from in our system, so I think that helps.
“At Sun Valley, one of the things that drew me to it was I don’t get kids from three different middle schools; I get kids from Sun Valley Middle, and that’s it,” continued Stein, who coached at Charlotte’s East Mecklenburg High before joining the Spartans in 2003.
“I’ve been able to watch them grow and progress as they’ve gotten older.”
And in many ways, said Porter Ridge coach Blair Hardin, it’s hard to grow a program without a middle school farm system.
“Your middle school is your foundation, it’s your program’s blueprint,” Hardin explained. “If you can get to those guys early, if they can get in the proper stance and use their hands, (and understand) the terminology, once they get to high school, it’s just going to be a habit for them.”
The setup isn’t unlike countless counties across the nation. But what may make Union County’s middle school system unique is most of the schools have not one team, but three.
“The biggest part of that is the great commitment this county has made to middle school football,” said Chadwick. “You have a large group of middle school athletes in this county playing football, and that’s not a bad thing at all.”
But amazingly, youth-league players keep coming out of the woodwork.
Wesley Chapel Weddington Athletic Association football commissioner James Shipley was expecting a slight drop in participation this fall after New Town Elementary added a fourth- and fifth-grade football team. Naturally, the two teams would draw from the same group of athletes, and lower numbers were expected within the WCWAA ranks as a result. Instead, Shipley said, his enrollment went from 440 athletes in 2010 to 580 this year – an increase of 20 percent.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Shipley of the demand for youth football in the area. “It was an eye-opener for us because we had to start looking for additional fields and adding equipment needs, which we weren’t prepared for.”
To Shipley, the continued interest in youth football in the area is a direct result of the success enjoyed by the local high school teams.
“Our high school and middle schools have done a great job promoting football, and it gets kids started at a younger age.”
Aside from simply increasing the pool of players, the county’s growth has also meant that more coaching vacancies were filled with top-notch leaders. Forest Hills coach John Lowery, entering his 18th season at the Yellow Jackets’ helm, said that while schools such as Parkwood, Piedmont, Monroe and Forest Hills probably don’t have that many more players to work with than they did 15 years ago (since most of the growth has taken place in the western portion of the county), the area has benefitted from a boost in the instruction being given.
“I think football in general here has gotten a lot better,” said Lowery.
Added Chadwick, who coached in Georgia and Maryland before joining Marvin Ridge: “This is my fourth job, and the quality of coaching I face week in and week out is as good as I’ve ever seen.”
And the players seem more willing to work outside the confines of a team practice, said Monroe coach Johnny Sowell.
“You’re getting many kids that are dedicated to their sport, and the parents are more knowledgeable about combines and personal trainers,” said Sowell. “That part has stepped up, too, and it’s putting these kids in position to be better athletes.”
And for their part, the high school coaches are allowed to do more now than in years past. For example, 10 years ago, it was unheard of to hold a spring football practice in North Carolina, but state regulations have changed to give coaches a chance to stay on par with other football-hungry areas.
“I think a lot of coaches in North Carolina would say that when you deal with South Carolina schools and Georgia and Alabama, and they have summer ball and all that, North Carolina is still behind,” Sowell said. “One way to catch up is having spring ball.
“You can start in March now,” Sowell continued. “The kids have an opportunity to get a little stronger and get a little bit better.”
The approach seems to have worked, and the evidence doesn’t just lie in the headline-hogging major-college offers. Former Forest Hills standout Juanne Blount is now a running back at Gardner-Webb. Campbell University features several local products in Marvin Ridge’s Diego Lawrence and Hunter Hiers, as well as Cuthbertson’s Adam Lutz and Jacob Brewer. Former Weddington lineman Brandon Kersnowski is now a freshman at Wofford. But perhaps no program has benefitted from Union County athletes more than Wingate, which includes Sun Valley’s Steven Cole, Cuthbertson’s Austin Hill and Forest Hills’ Aaron Sigmon on its roster.
But in many ways, the argument has a chicken-or-the-egg quality to it, said Hardin, who faced Piedmont, Sun Valley, Forest Hills and Parkwood as a player for Kannapolis A.L. Brown in the early 2000s.
To Hardin, the county’s success is beginning to perpetuate itself, which makes it an exciting time to be a football coach in Union County.
“I think it’s word of mouth,” he explained. “When you look at the teams in our conference; Marvin Ridge has won nine or 10 games every year, and Sun Valley’s the same. They put out numerous Division-I recruits.
“A lot of people are saying Union County has good football, and I’m just happy to be a part of it.”
But again, the population boom hasn’t hurt.
“Obviously there’s a lot of people here (now),” said Lowery, “so there’s enough talent to spread around.”