Why not the Warriors?

Big win reasserts Weddington as a team to beat

by Aaron Garcia

The Weddington football team, sparked by players such as (from left) Collin Lisa, Billy Ryan, Cole Finch, Buck Jones, Jake Yurek and Drew Podreberac, face Kannapolis Brown this week after knocking of the state’s top-ranked Class 3AA team in Belmont South Point last week. (Aaron Garcia/UCW photo)

The Weddington football team had every excuse last week to travel to the state’s top-ranked Class 3AA team – Belmont South Point – and lose in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association playoffs. Mired in a three-game losing streak to finish the regular season, the Warriors appeared to be limping into the postseason after dropping games to league rivals Porter Ridge, Sun Valley and rival Marvin Ridge. After finishing the season with a 6-4 overall record after a 6-1 start, the Warriors earned a seventh seed and drew arguably the toughest matchup of the evening.

But somehow, after falling out of league title contention and watching much of their hopes for the season start to slip away, they asked themselves a crucial question, said quarterback Drew Podreberac.

“We came back last week and asked, ‘Why not?’” Podreberac said. “‘Let’s just go win. Let’s make an upset.’”

And that’s exactly what they did. On Nov. 4, the Warriors travelled to South Point, which had one of the most daunting home-field atmospheres in the state, and came away with a 23-17 win.

Podreberac completed 18 of his 33 passes for 254 yards and a score, with one interception. He was a model of equality with his targets. Jake Yurek and Collin Lisa each had six catches, while Ryan Black caught five passes and a touchdown. But the performance wasn’t just highlighted by offensive highlights, as the Warriors held South Point well below its season-long average of 47 points per game. Weddington coach Tim Carson commended defensive end Buck Jones and safety Billy Ryan for their hard-nosed play, while Jack Ryan, a sophomore starting in his first varsity game at cornerback, led the way with 15 total tackles and an interception.

In many ways, last Friday’s task wasn’t as daunting to the players as it was to those on the outside looking in. In their four years, the Warriors’ senior players have made a practice of perseverance. For starters, Carson is their third varsity coach in four years, taking over a program that won just five games in the current senior class’s first two years, including an 0-11 season in 2008. Even as the Warriors began to show signs of improvement last year when they finished the season 9-4, they ended the campaign by losing four of their final five games.

“We just worked really hard in practice and it really showed in the game,” the sophomore Lisa said. “Everyone was working hard. No one wanted (the season) to end like it did last year.”

But perhaps most importantly, the Warriors have played this year as if they have nothing to lose, because, well, they don’t. Not after the lumps they’ve taken.

Last July, as the Warriors were prepping for their season, they got the bad news that former head coach Justin Hardin had departed to take the offensive coordinator post at one of South Carolina’s top programs, Rock Hill South Pointe. Suddenly, the Warriors’ ship seemed rudderless. But to their credit, said Lisa, the older players took control of the program and gave it direction.

“You can easily not try if your coach isn’t there, but everyone was pushing each other,” Lisa said.

With a few weeks to spare before the season officially started, the Warriors hired Carson, a former Sun Valley assistant coach, to take the helm. His impact was felt immediately, said Yurek.

“I think the first time we came out as a team in practice at (training) camp, I think we knew he believed in us and we’ve bonded since that time,” Yurek said.

Added Lisa: “He’s done a great job. He came in 24 days before the season and put the stuff in place immediately. He hadn’t look back at all. He’s been doing great.”

But Carson is quick to credit the players for hanging tough through a trying time, one that could’ve derailed the season before it ever began.

“When I took over the team, the kids were energetic,” Carson said. “We had a good meeting and we went to camp and that helped put that into play. Everyone bought into the season.

“They had to hang in there, but they were used to (doing) that. It’s paid off for them, I think.”

Carson said he’s been impressed with how the players don’t get too excited after good plays or too downtrodden after bad ones. They’ve kept a nice, even keel, which has helped keep them from tripping when stumbling blocks emerged this year.

“This crew, you can’t really read if they’re real high or real low; they just come to work and have a good time,” Carson said.

Which certainly pays off when facing a team such as Belmont South Point.

“I threw an interception, and the defense got the ball right back,” said Podreberac. “I fumbled the ball, and the defense got the ball right back. The defense really had the offense’s back, and we tried to have their backs.”

And that approach certainly helped the Warriors get over their three-game slide to end the season. After all, the losses came after wins over Charlotte powers Ardrey Kell and Olympic, so the precedent for success was there, as long as they didn’t allow the three losses to take on extra meaning.

“Losing sucks, and you can be down on it or you can use it as, ‘What are we doing wrong?’ and fix it,” Podreberac said. “That’s what we did.”

The players also said a new-found approach to the game has helped that mind-set. In the past, they said, they would get tense and play tightly rather than letting the games come to them. Now, as Carson has preached, the players are concentrating on enjoying themselves, which, in turn, gives them less to lose in a loss.

“I think that changed the way we started playing,” senior Cole Finch said. “We started playing more relaxed, more dedicated and with more heart.

“We seniors, we didn’t want to go out with a four-game losing streak,” Finch continued. “That would’ve been downgrading. I think we all came in relaxed and played the game the way we wanted to.”

Added Billy Ryan: “That’s one of the big things. We have fun out here, but we also work hard, and we’re really trying to get better for the next game. I like it a lot more because I think it makes us want to play the sport more, and it gives us more of a reason to come out here and work.”

And through it all, the players learned the patience to trust that good things were coming, even as things seemed to be getting worse around them. Against South Point, that patience finally paid off.

“I think we’ve been waiting for a big win like that this whole time,” Yurek said. “We knew it was going to come eventually, and once it did, it gave us that little extra belief in ourselves.”

And it served notice to the rest of the state that Weddington can’t be defined by its win-loss record alone.

“I think it opened some peoples’ eyes that when we’re clicking, we can play some real good football,” Carson said. “I think that’s what it really does show. We just have to be consistent in playing the best we can play.”

Now, it’s on to Kannapolis A.L. Brown, a strong team with an 11-1 record that many expect to challenge for the state title, especially with South Point out of the equation.

While the Weddington players haven’t allowed their past hardships to affect their current tact, they’re more than happy letting last week’s victory fuel them as they travel to Kannapolis to take on the vaunted Wonders.

“It helps us realize we can play with anyone,” said Billy Ryan. “That’s really going to help us. I’m really eager to see how we do against A.L. Brown.”

Which brings up an important question: Why not?

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