Still Standing

Despite a shaky regular season, the Spartans have re-set their sights on a state title

The Sun Valley football team, led by (form left) Kevin Saxton, Eddie Kelly, Ryan Smith, Jacob Cannell, David Marino, Jody Fuller and Jarred Barr rebounded from 5-5 regular-season finish to advance to the third round of the Class 4A playoffs against Mooresville this Friday. (Aaron Garcia/UCW photo)

by Aaron Garcia

The scene was remarkable for several obvious reasons. For starters, the fact that head coach Scott Stein and assistant Pat Furr were at the front of the weight room belting out a poorly harmonized duet rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” obviously tickled their Sun Valley football players gathered for the performance. The song, which could be considered the anthem for most any head football coach, was largely unfamiliar to the young players but still held their attention, no small feat for any teenager these days.

But with all the laughter and self-effacing singing, the most remarkable thing about the sliver in time was the fact that it happened before the Spartans took to the field for a football practice. Regardless of the hardships and losses they accrued this year, the Spartans were still alive, and still looking forward to a third-round playoff game, which had been the team’s plan all along.

But in early October, as the Spartans returned to their team buses following a 31-14 throttling from Marvin Ridge, the moment couldn’t have seemed less possible.

Entering the season, the Spartans were an early favorite to challenge for the Class 4A state championship. They had a rocket-armed quarterback in Ryan Smith, a game-breaking receiver in Jody Fuller and one of the state’s most undervalued running backs, JaDarrius Williams, who had made a habit of breaking off long scoring runs.

The key, everyone thought, would be getting through their first two games unscathed. Heck, many thought Sun Valley would present headaches to its first two opponents – state powers Richmond Senior and Charlotte Mallard Creek.

But at the end of the two games, the Spartans were 0-2 and had been outscored 112-49.

Still, there was hope, and a three-game win streak proved that it was founded. Or at least that’s the way it looked from the outside.

“But it still wasn’t fixed,” said Stein. “There was still something missing in our play, in our attitudes, in our camaraderie and in our chemistry. All those things.”

The following week, the Spartans dropped another game to a tough Anson squad.

Then came the Marvin Ridge game. Against the Mavs, the Spartans seemed out of tune. Drives stalled. Coverages were blown. The Mavs won, 31-14, and suddenly the Spartans were 3-4 overall and their 0-2 mark in Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference play left them dangerously close to missing the post-season altogether.

Stein remembers the drive back to their Monroe campus vividly.

“I think, naturally, everyone was downcast and depressed,” said Stein. “There was a lot of self-reflection. That came back with us.”

But as painful losses have a way of doing, the Spartans’ performance against the Marvin Ridge served as a wake-up call, starting the following morning when they gathered for their customary Saturday morning meeting.

“It was really far away,” said senior defensive lineman Eddie Kelly of the Spartans’ current postseason presence. “Everyone counted us out at that point. We came in that Saturday and we had this big talk about how we were going to change things.”

Smith said he was expecting the worst entering the team meeting.

“Everyone expected (Stein) to be completely angry, but it just wasn’t that (kind of meeting),” Smith said. “We had a bunch of losses at that point, but we really corrected them and we really got going. We found our identity at that point.

“We knew we had Parkwood coming up (that Friday) and we knew we had to correct it that week because Parkwood would beat us.”

Stein explained that several things happened at the meeting. For one, both the players and the coaches were forced to look inward and figure out why they were in that situation. There were tangible tweaks to be made, sure. But that wasn’t the most important thing that needed fixing, said the coach.

Stein told his team – coaches and players – to ask themselves an important question: “What do we want to accomplish this season?”

For the first time in weeks, the answer wasn’t some form of correction the team needed to make. Instead, they realized that, despite the losses and disappointment to that point, the possibility of aiming for a title was still a realistic goal. It was just what the Spartans needed.

“We couldn’t correct the past, but we (decided) we had to keep pushing forward and find a way to finish this journey with our heads up, our chests out and believing in ourselves,” Stein said.

The players then took to the gym for their regular Saturday practice.

“When they went (to the gym), they decided they were up for it, they wanted to make a stand,” said Stein. “I could tell a difference by the time we left the gym. I could tell a difference in attitude, effort, focus – all those things.

“We all woke up that Saturday morning feeling pretty bad, and we had to find a way to feel good by the time we left.”

The renewed focus manifested itself in the form of a 56-7 drubbing of Parkwood the following Friday, a score closer to what onlookers had expected all season. The Spartans followed that with a hard-fought 11-9 win over Weddington. The Spartans suffered one more loss, this time to rival Porter Ridge, but Sun Valley played the undefeated Pirates well in the 21-16 loss. The Spartans finished the regular season 5-5 but managed a berth in the Class 4A playoffs.

Sun Valley opened postseason play with a 52-23 win over Asheville -Reynolds before hosting, and beating, -Huntersville Hopewell last week, 35-28.

Now, as the Spartans prepare for a trip to Mooresville – a team they downed in last year’s playoffs – the Spartans are right where they wanted to be all along.

There have been some definable differences in the Spartans game plans. During that fateful Saturday morning meeting, Stein and his coaches decided to revamp both the offense and the defense. Now, the Spartans offense relies on a fastbreak approach fueled by a no-huddle attack geared toward getting, and keeping, opponents off balance by feeding the ball to playmakers such as Fuller and Williams. The defense also picked up the pace – the coaching staff shuffled the lineup and put an emphasis on speed. Now, the Spartans run a blitz-heavy scheme aimed at dictating a game’s pace.

But all that came secondary to the team’s heightened sense of focus.

“I don’t know if there was anything definable you could look at,” said Stein when asked about the differences in his team now and before it lost to Marvin Ridge. “It’s just been a demeanor that’s been a little different for us.

“It’s been a gradual growth and the kids have bought in,” Stein continued. “As the kids buy in to anything, I think they saw their teammates’ and coaches’ excitement and those things, and I think everything just came together a little bit.”

And in many ways, said Smith, the current success the team’s enjoying can simply be explained as a matter of coming together on, and off, the field.

“We’re playing our best football right now,” he said. “Winning three out of out last four (games) is really big for us, especially going into this time of year. I really think we’re all just starting to click at the right time.

“Everybody just counted us out, and we took that, put it on our shoulders and ran with it. I don’t think anybody expected us to be where we are right now and that’s big for us.”

Now, as is the case with every other team still vying for a title, regardless of record, the Spartans are one loss away from going home for the season. But more important, the Spartans are right where they wanted to be when they set out for preseason practices in August: two wins away from a trip to the Class 4A state title game.

“They’ve gone through a lot of hard times (this season),” Stein said. “At the end of the day, that’s really all we could focus on was that a journey is a long, long trip. You’ve got to be willing to take it.

“Too many people start on journeys but they never finish,” Stein continued. “Most of the time, they don’t finish because they give up.”

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