SouthLake’s once-struggling program enjoying strong season
by Chris Hunt
On Oct. 22, the SouthLake Christian Academy football team pummeled second-year program Fayetteville Village Christian, 41-6. There was little doubt on that night which was the established team and which was an upstart squad; just one look at each sideline told the story. The winless Knights were not only at a major disadvantage in size, but in experience and number of players as well.
Although both programs are headed in different directions, SouthLake coach Rich Landis said there was something very familiar about Village Christian’s team. It was just two seasons ago that the Eagles were in a similarly helpless position. SouthLake’s juniors and seniors, especially, could sympathize with their adversaries because they know firsthand what it’s like to experience the pain of an agonizing season.
Back in 2008, a bruised and battered SouthLake squad lost 12 contributors to injury and struggled just to put 20 healthy players on the field. The low point was a humbling 56-14 loss to Division II state finalist Concord First Assembly on Oct. 17. In that game, the Eagles dressed just 18 players and started eight freshmen on offense. Just like the Knights would do a little more than two years later, the Eagles looked across the field at their oversized opponents and knew they had no chance to win the game.
“It was real hard to watch that season,” said Landis. “The boys never vocalized it, but you could see they weren’t ready for that level of play. They lacked confidence and strength because they were still growing. Many of them were just ninth-graders.”
This season, SouthLake’s football program has risen from the dark, frustrating ashes of two years ago to reap the benefits of a roster twice the size, stuffed full of confidence and experience. The Eagles rout of Village Christian was their seventh win of the year, which is one more than their total for the past two seasons.
These days, the coming-of-age Eagles are thinking playoffs. A win in the season finale at conference rival Forsyth Country Day on Friday, Oct. 29, is for more than just third-place in the Carolina Piedmont Football Conference; it could also mean a home game in the first round of the N.C. Independent School Athletic Association Division II playoffs, something the Eagles would never have dreamt of in 2008.
“Back then, we were just trying to survive the season,” said junior wide receiver/linebacker Kendall Godwin. “We felt it was our obligation to fight hard for those who couldn’t play (because of injury), but this season it’s fun. It’s more an enjoyment to play, not an obligation.”
Sure, the Eagles (7-3, 3-2 CPFC) have had their fair share of setbacks this fall, but nothing like the 2008 season, when they lost three of their four captains to year-ending injuries. Godwin, along with leading tackler Taylor Jurney (71 tackles and six sacks), lineman Stephen Bolton and quarterback Sam Remick (1,604 passing yards, 15 passing touchdowns, 730 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns) are just a few of the players who struggled through the tough times but are now enjoying the fruits of their persistence. In some respects, the debacle of the 2008 season was the best thing for those players over the long run.
“We learned so much about the game of football,” said Godwin, who’s also SouthLake’s backup quarterback. “I was a defensive specialist my freshman year, but we had to learn how to play all over the place. As a freshman, I played multiple positions. I started at safety one game and ended up playing nose tackle.”
In losing often, the Eagles also learned to deal with adversity at a young age. The program’s mounting enthusiasm entering the 2010 season could have been squashed by a devastating 45-0 season-opening loss to Westminster Catawba. Instead, the Eagles rallied to win their next four games and turn the season around.
“The mood this season has been very optimistic, even after out first loss,” said Remick. “We have so much more depth and team unity this season. There’s just a lot more people playing football this year.”
There’s more than just one reason for the SouthLake football program’s rise up the conference standings. A roster of more than 40 players this fall was a good beginning, but the enthusiasm surrounding the program has meant more to the Eagles’ best start since they won 10 games in 2007, a season considered the best in their eight-year history.
The culture change is a direct result of Landis’ grassroots effort, which was started six years ago. That’s when Landis founded the Junior Eagles Football Association for third- through sixth-graders. He did so after hearing that a local, overcrowded youth football program in the Lake Norman area was turning players away on registration day because it couldn’t support the demand for the sport.
Landis’ interest wasn’t to compete against the local youth football program but rather to help quench the community’s thirst for the sport. Since then, JEFA has flourished, growing to 200 players this fall. Games are held Saturdays on SouthLake’s varsity football field. Bolton, a junior, was one of the first varsity players who played JEFA football. This season, half of the Eagles’ freshmen class came up through the JEFA ranks.
There was also an interesting side effect to the JEFA program. Fueled by the youth football league, the Eagles’ middle-school football program began to flourish. Last season, SouthLake’s middle-school team fielded 53 players and finished 11-0 on the season. This year, 48 players contributed to eight victories in nine games.
“The original idea was to start another league to meet the demand,” said Landis. “I heard that registration would fill up early and kids were turned away on registration day without the chance to sign up. We were losing a lot of kids to other sports who weren’t coming back to football later in life. The JEFA program is a direct result of why the SouthLake middle-school program is so big. ”
With plenty of players coming up the SouthLake pipeline, Landis also reestablished the junior varsity program, which had been dormant for two seasons. He canceled it in 2008 because many of the freshman and sophomores were needed to play varsity. In hindsight, Landis said it was a mistake. He said the varsity program benefits in the long run from JV, even with just 18 players on the 2010 roster.
“The last two years, we didn’t have a junior varsity program, but I was determined to have one this year, even if we only dressed 14 to 18 kids,” said Landis. “The practice and reps in games keep the younger players motivated. This year, the freshmen are excited about shooting for varsity next year, and if they don’t, they have JV to fall back on.”
Like a boulder rolling down a rocky mountainside, the buzz circling the football program has also created enough interest to collect athletes who might not have considered playing football in the past. Linebackers/receivers Spencer Cole and Travis Hallman are baseball players who joined the football team last summer without much experience.
Hallman now ranks among Mecklenburg County leaders with 34 catches for 783 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s also collected 66 tackles, three sacks and three interceptions, while Cole has chipped in 42 stops. Hallman has had so much success, he’s in pursuit of a college football scholarship. He’s already taken unofficial visits to Appalachian State, The Citadel and Elon.
And it’s more than just Hallman and Cole giving football a late chance. Their baseball teammate, Jared Fortune, last year’s home run leader with 16, joined the Eagles for his senior season. He is now a starter at tight end in his first season of football.
“Coaches kept asking me to play football since sixth grade,” said Fortune. “Football has been more fun than I expected it to be because it’s the ultimate team sport. After the first game, I said, ‘Wow, I should have played as a freshman.’ I wish I’d done it sooner.”
Thanks to the JEFA program and a strong middle-school football system, stories about late bloomers such as Hallman, Cole and Fortune could become rare in the years to come.
More important, however, the Eagles are winning games again. Thanks to a strong foundation at the middle- and elementary-school levels, Landis hopes he’ll never have to relive the 2008 season.