by Lee Noles
INDIAN TRAIL – In the nine years since Metrolina Christian first lined up to play football, the Warriors have gone from a fledgling program which struggled to find a place to play, or even dress, into a two-time conference champion with eight straight winning seasons.
The only thing missing now in the nearly decade-long building process is a state title, and that accomplishment can come Nov. 16 at home against Country Day.
“We have obviously come a long, long way,” said Metrolina coach Thomas Langley, who has been with the program since the start and whose team enters Friday at 8-3 and on a three-game winning streak. “We had some pretty good teams, but this is the best team we have had. These guys have bought in to what we have done, and the credit goes to them… They have worked hard.”
A state title appeared a distant thought when the program launched its inaugural season in 2010. The Warriors played junior varsity that year, and according to Langley, 27 of his 33 players had never played organized football before that season. Lack of space was another hurdle the program faced after the team had to use a little league baseball field for practice.
When it came to a locker room?
“We didn’t have one,” Langley said. “It’s really difficult to know where we are now and where we came from. Not just because of us playing for a state championship, but the way we practice, the way we lift and the facilities. It’s a complete antithesis of the way we started.”
But season by season, there was improvement. By 2015, the Warriors enjoyed their only undefeated regular season by going 9-0 before suffering a first-round loss in the playoffs. After a down year the following season, Metrolina bounced back in 2017 to win the first of two straight league titles.
Another early postseason exit, however, had Langley realizing changes were needed. He started by adding consistent state title winner University Christian out of Florida and Trinity Christian from Fayetteville to a schedule which included local powerhouse Charlotte Christian.
University Christian has won nine state championships while Charlotte Christian claimed their seventh this past season. Metrolina lost all three games by a 130-23 margin, but the experience proved invaluable.
“There was no real common ground,” Langley said of past schedules. “We were beaten handily by teams like (Charlotte) Christian, but we won handily over other teams. We wanted to make it a little tougher so we could be more battle-tested when it came to the playoffs. I think it has worked out well for us.”
Last week’s 28-21 playoff win over High Point Christian showed how much the tougher schedule factored as Metrolina staved off a late-game rush by the Cougars for the seven-point win.
Metrolina built a 14-0 halftime advantage behind the backfield tandem of juniors Jack Crump and Jadus Davis. The duo ran for a combined 334 yards and three touchdowns. Angel Gonzalez continued his stellar play after starting quarterback Myles Saxton went down with an injury against Charlotte Christian on Oct. 12. Gonzalez has thrown for seven touchdowns and 556 yards in the last three games. Saxton returned against High Point Christian and played nearly 30 percent of the snaps under center. Langley expects both quarterbacks to take snaps in the title game.
“It gives us a better passing game,” Saxton said. “And it makes us more diverse. He can pass and run, I can come in and pass and run. It’s a very good thing.”
The other change Langley made this season was cutting his team’s workouts from two and half-hours to a little more than an hour-and-a-half. The shorter time ratchets up the intensity so practices feel more like an actual game.
“Games are pretty intense, and if you don’t have your practice simulate that intensity, you probably won’t play as good.” Langley said.
Langley referred to the Warriors’ first championship appearance like being the new kids on the block. If so, then the old guard fits Country Day (7-5) nicely with its 14 state titles. The championship game also marks the second straight year Metrolina and Country Day have met in the postseason. The Bucs upended the Warriors last year in the state semifinals, and Metrolina has not forgotten the loss.
“There is a little bit of desire and redemption because they did beat us last year,” Langley said. “But it’s also just another game. It may be a state championship game, but when you get down to it, it’s 11 against 11. But to play against a program like that and possibly win a state championship would mean a lot for our guys for sure.”
The abundance of state titles in Country Day’s trophy case is something that doesn’t faze Metrolina defensive lineman CJ Parker.
“The way we look at it is that the players now were not on those (state championship) teams,” Parker said of the Bucs, who last state title came in 2010. “And it motivates us because we are not known like Charlotte Christian, Charlotte Latin or Charlotte Catholic. We are just getting started.”
Langley said his team’s focus this week is something he is keeping an eye on. The school will hold a pep rally Friday, and Langley expects both programs to draw large crowds.
“It will be an intense week with the hype and buzz,” Langley said. “We will tell them to lock in and focus, and do what we always have done. And after that, nothing else matters.”
Saxton, a senior, said the focus for a state title started the moment the Warriors were eliminated from last year’s playoff.
“We really want this,” he said. “And this being my last year, I really want a state championship. And I would feel so blessed to get it with this team.”