by Aaron Garcia
At times, it probably seemed like I was pandering a bit. But, hand over my heart, whenever I wrote that the brand of football played in Union County would be among the best in the state this season, I truly believed it.
Now, this isn’t an I-told-you-so moment. I’m sure many of you felt the same way this summer. We saw glimpses of it last fall as several of our local teams were showing marked improvement from the year before.
But now, as six of the nine playoff-qualifying teams from the county are still standing in the second round of the state playoffs, the numbers are backing up our assertion.
The best football in the state just might be played in Union County.
Of course, there are exceptions. Mecklenburg County’s Butler and Mallard Creek high schools are rightfully seen as perhaps the top two programs in the state and are among the best in the nation. It’s hard to compete there. But top to bottom, no other area has done what our local teams have done this season. The six teams still standing have a combined record of 57-15, and even that’s a bit misleading, as Porter Ridge’s 11-1 record was marred by a forfeit after the Pirates violated the state’s eight-quarter rule.
Need further proof? Just look at what the teams from the Southern Carolina 3A/4A conference have done this season.
Regularly viewed as a strong 3A conference, teams within the South Piedmont were 0-4 against Union County teams. The Big South 4A, based mainly in Gaston County, was 0-2.
Need a better frame of reference? How about one of the most respected conferences in the state, home of nine of the past 11 state champions, Charlotte-based Southwestern 4A? Ardrey Kell, the league’s second-place team, was 0-2 (one loss was a forfeit to Weddington after Ardrey Kell violated the eight-quarter rule). The Knights advanced to the second round of the playoffs, further proving my point.
Charlotte’s I-MECK 4A or the MEGA 7 3A/4A conferences? 0-5 against Union County. Of those teams, Vance and Olympic, who both lost to Sun Valley, each qualified for the playoffs, as did Mooresville, which fell to the Spartans in last week’s opening round.
Piedmont, Monroe and Forest Hills have each done their part, too. Charlotte Berry, undefeated through its first nine games and appearing to be one of the state’s upstart programs, dropped consecutive contests to Piedmont and Monroe late in the season. The three have combined to win 22 of their last 23 games.
There are different theories as to why Union County has risen to prominence, and to be honest, it’s probably a little bit of each. Let’s start with population growth. Of the nine teams that made it to the playoffs, five of them – Porter Ridge, Weddington, Marvin Ridge, Union Academy and Central Academy – didn’t even exist a decade ago. Obviously, a larger player pool can only help.
But perhaps the biggest reason for the influx of success is something most of the local coaches won’t own up to – the coaching itself. There may not be a better area in the state for coaching talent, pound for pound. Justin and Blair Hardin, the twin brothers that head up Weddington and Porter Ridge, respectively, have turned around programs that had developed reputations as pushovers. Marvin Ridge coach Scott Chadwick won a state championship in Maryland before landing in Union County, and Piedmont’s Frank Ambrose has the Panthers looking like legitimate state championship contenders after going 1-10 just two years ago.
Those are just the upstarts; Sun Valley’s Scott Stein, Forest Hills’ John Lowery and Monroe’s Johnny Sowell are considered among the top football minds in the state. This season, Lowery will coach the North Carolina team in the 2010 Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas game and Sowell will assist him.
See? It’s not just me. Now, just remember:
I told you so.