“I’m growing older, but not up,” Jimmy Buffett, the Bard of the tropics, once sang. And every Friday night in the fall I can relate very strongly to that. I hope I never outgrow the enjoyment I get out of covering high school football games, as I’ve done nearly every fall for the last 35 years.
That covers living in both Carolinas, Alabama, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania, a list of states which encompasses some pretty good prep football. But wherever I’ve been, I’ve found stories. And a month into the season, I’m finding some good ones this fall.
I saw one of the best high school football games that I’ve written about in recent years on Saturday, when Vance, who wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a top Charlotte area high school team a month ago, upset perennial powerhouse Independence 21-20 at Vance. (Some Charlotte-area games have been played on Saturday for the last two weeks due to the observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish holiday.)
Independence has been one of the area’s flagship programs for the past decade, and they gained national exposure for a 109-game winning streak from 2000 to 2007, a period in which they won a North Carolina record seven straight state championships.
But this isn’t your big brother’s Independence team. Former head coach Tom Knotts. the architect of the streak and the dynasty, has moved on to Dutch Fork High School in the Columbia, S.C., area. And things haven’t gone well for the Patriots under the new coach, Knotts’ long-time defensive coordinator Bill Geiler, as Independence has started 0-4 for the first time in recent memory. (They haven’t lost more than three games in any season since 2000.)
They didn’t look overwhelming in the first half of Saturday’s game. But they appeared to at least be on the way to breaking that rare losing streak in the first half, taking a 14-0 lead to the break.
But the Cougars energized their home crowd by turning two fumble recoveries into touchdowns — one on an 80-yard return by Calvin Hunter and another when a center snap rolled through the Independence punter’s legs and into the end zone, where Vance’s Terrale Mobley fell on it.
Larenz Bryant scored what turned out to be the winning touchdown for the Cougars on a 6-yard run with four minutes to play, then Vance held on as Independence went down swinging. The Patriots drove 74 yards and scored with 5 seconds to play on a 5-yard pass from quarterback Evan Guest to end Dequan Barnes, but couldn’t connect on a two-point conversion pass when they went for the win.
Vance, coached by Phil Culicerto, formerly an assistant coach at Wingate and a head coach at Division III Emory & Henry, is now 2-2, A couple of weeks ago the Cougars gave another area powerhouse, Butler, a battle for three quarters before losing. I’m now looking forward to their game with Mallard Creek, another of the new dominant area teams, on Oct. 8.
If Independence is the juggernaut falling on hard times, Garinger High has gone from down-and-out to a shot at respectability this season. The Wildcats, and the school’s predecessor Central High, were the class of Charlotte area football into the decade of the Sixties, but highlights have been few and far between since then. Garinger has suffered through losing streaks of 18 games or more four different times since 1989. They’ve had only four winning seasons since 1975.
So that’s why their 3-2 start this season is nothing short of amazing, especially their current three-game winning streak. The Charlotte Observer couldn’t determine the last time that had happened. I saw them beat first-year Hough in Huntersville last Saturday, and they have some offensive players that are fun to watch. (In that game, I had expected that the story would be the new school starting its season 4-0 — proof that you should wait until you see the game to determine what the story is.)
I didn’t have time to pursue this angle on deadline, but I enjoyed a brief chat with the Wildcats’ interim coach, Lin Fisher. Two years ago, Fisher, who calls himself a “Merrill Lynch refugee,” was working in an uptown Charlotte office building as a financial analyst. He lost his job in Bank of America’s ill-fated purchase of Merrill Lynch in the fall of 2008.
“I had always been interested in coaching, and I decided that it was as good a time as any to follow my passion,” said Fisher, who served as a volunteer assistant coach at Garinger in 2009 and took the helm when head coach Terry Liggin was suspended by the school district shortly before the start of this season.
So far, both Fisher and his team are living their dreams. We’ll see what the second half of the season holds.