by Staff Writer
by Cliff Mehrtens
First-year high school football teams almost universally battle the same obstacles.
Inexperienced players. Lack of depth. Still-developing cohesion. At smaller schools, it’s often a battle to build an ample roster.
In most cases, winning a game or two that first season is seen as a major building block. If an established power romps against you, well, that often happens with newbies.
So, then, how is Davidson Day bucking the rookie-year trend so emphatically?
The Patriots have roared to a 3-0 start, winning by 32, 27 and 33 points.
They, too, have inexperienced players, not much depth and a smallish roster (about 25 players).
Davidson Day doesn’t even have a home field yet, which has translated into road trips to Harrells (200 miles), Fayetteville (134 miles) and Camden, S.C. (101 miles).
Unofficial motto: Be a Patriot, see the Carolinas!
But what the Patriots have is an unbeaten mark, which only one other Lake Norman-area team (SouthLake Christian) can boast.
Davidson Day’s players and coaches refuse to use their first-year status as an excuse.
“The players never expected to be anything but 3-0 at this point,” coach Chad Grier said. “They’re not cocky, but they’re confident. We also have a great staff of coaches, who stress the fundamentals. Coaching is a piece of it, but that really began last season and continued through the summer.”
The Patriots’ pseudo-first year, when they played a junior varsity schedule in 2010, resulted in a 10-0 record.
Grier said the players set goals early on. The timing of those declarations make him chuckle now.
Davidson Day had been pummeled in a 7-on-7 scrimmage against Charlotte Latin in the summer of 2010. Grier gathered the players on the field and talk turned to goals. Usually after losing so badly, coaches use it as a teaching moment or a this-is-what-we-need-to-improve speech.
Not the Patriots.
The players told Grier they wanted to win state championships and be nationally ranked.
“It was all I could do not to laugh, considering what had just happened,” Grier said. “But that’s the kind of kids they are. Our goal as coaches is to create a program we can be proud of. We print out goals, and none of them has to do with winning.”
But Grier and the players agree that if they’re going to keep score, let’s shoot for having the highest score.
Lamar Briggs, a sophomore linebacker, remembers that gathering after the lopsided scrimmage.
“We said championships,” he said. “Plural.”
The team went through a rigorous summer schedule, including a weeklong camp in the mountains of western North Carolina. Practices were three times a day.
“And the first one was at 5:45 a.m. every day,” linebacker Tre Hunt said. “We really started becoming a family at camp.”
The first eye-opener was a 61-29 victory at Harrells Christian in the first game of the season. The Patriots had 40 points by halftime.
That was followed by a 61-34 romp at Trinity Christian and a 40-7 victory against Camden Military.
Not many first-year teams, or any squads, average 54 points.
Davidson Day has a pass-happy Spread offense that’s dominating. More important, it has the ingredients to make it work.
Quarterback Will Grier is 6-foot-3 with a strong arm. In three games, he’s 68-of-98 passing for 1,132 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Patriots spread the ball all over the field, and top targets are Aaron Seward (19 catches, 368 yards, five touchdowns), Evan Gates (12 catches, 240 yards) and Jordan Brown (12 catches, 234 yards, five touchdowns).
“He is throwing on time,” Chad Grier said. “Will is going through his (coverage) reads, and the offensive line is giving him protection. We like for teams to blitz us because that means 1-on-1 coverage. It’s all come together so far. The players have been so poised and confident.”
Last season’s junior varsity schedule was a “dry run and great experience for us,” Grier said.
He’s been coaching a long time and taken bits and pieces from other coaches, such as longtime NFL assistant Kevin Gilbride, University of Georgia head coach Mark Richt and Charlotte Latin’s Larry McNulty.
“It’s not my first rodeo coaching,” Chad Grier said with a laugh. “We wanted to build a system that was flexible enough to not be predictable. You don’t want formations that are a dead giveaway as to whether you’re going to run or pass.”
The defense has played a key role in the fast start, too, though it’s easy to be overlooked when the offense is rolling up 60-plus points.
Hunt, the middle linebacker, leads the Patriots with 27 tackles. On offense, he plays center. Grier raves about Hunt’s character.
Gates, an outside linebacker, had a dream game in the opener. He scored three defensive touchdowns – two interception returns and a fumble return.
Briggs, the other outside linebacker, filled in at offensive guard without complaint, Grier said, when a starter was injured. Nick Lamach has been a solid two-way lineman helping allow the linebackers to roam free.
“The energy the defense brings has been really good,” Lamach said. “The linebackers definitely bring the energy.”
The verbal spark starts with a pre-game exchange with linebackers coach Doug Moore.
Grier isn’t getting caught up in too much of the giddiness surrounding the 3-0 start. He’s a coach, after all. His job is to be concerned. Tough matchups loom against his alma mater Charlotte Latin and Asheville School, among others.
Little injuries will pile up, because as Grier said, “it’s a collision sport.”
“But we want to challenge these kids,” he said. “We decided if we’re going to do football, we want to have the same standards as everything else at the school. High standards.”
The fast start has helped the excitement spread throughout the school.
For instance, basketball star Jason Eddie is set to join the football team. Grier said he has football experience, and who would turn down a 6-foot-4 receiver? A lacrosse player joined the team. So did a soccer player.
A few female students volunteered to serve as team managers.
The middle school team is doing well and won 40-6 last week against Forysth Country Day.
There are plans for a stadium on campus next season, which should fuel more enthusiasm.
“I think the players’ mentality is they didn’t work hard all summer for nothing,” Grier said. “The players really earned this last summer. We figure if they’re going to keep score, why not try to win. We want to win, and win a lot.
“We have always said that we want to out-hit, out-hustle and out-condition everyone we play.”