The effects of Pirates’ unprecedented success felt in areas beyond gridiron
by Aaron Garcia
On one hand, Porter Ridge High School Principal Sam Basden knows this week will culminate with the Pirate football team’s final home game of the season when they host Mocksville’s Davie High in the Class 4A state semifinals. All season, the fans have turned out in droves, turning the campus’ parking lots into a NASCAR-like tailgating festival, complete with campers, cornhole tournaments and cookers.
The “Bone Yard” – the grassy stretch that surrounds the tennis courts – is expected to be packed by 5:30 p.m., two hours before kickoff. Most Fridays, Basden said, as many as 1,000 people have turned out by 6:30.
“When you come to a Porter Ridge football game, come early,” he said.
Now, with a chance to play in the state championship game hanging in the balance, Basden can only imagine what the scene will look like on Friday. There’s plenty to be excited about. He knows it. The students know it.
But on the other hand, Basden knows the excitement needs to be tempered.
“We don’t have anything special planned for this week,” he said. “According to our head football coach (Blair Hardin), this is just a regular work week. It’s another game and another challenge. We’re all geeked up about it and looking forward to an amazing night – we have posters and those sorts of things going up, and there’s a lot of talk. But as far as having a pep rally or any special events, we’re trying to keep the focus on the game and make this week of preparation the same as maybe the fourth week of the season.
“There’s kind of a duality there.”
In other words, despite what Friday’s game might mean for the six-year-old program, it’s business as usual for the Pirates and their fans.
But when it comes down to it, this week is anything but usual for the school, especially considering the program’s unremarkable beginnings.
When it started in 2005, the team was anything but precocious. Through the first four years, Porter Ridge won just seven games. A win Friday would give the Pirates their 14th victory of the season, matching the win total from their first five years combined.
Porter Ridge Athletic Booster Club President Mike Lunsford has been involved since the sports program’s inception. He negotiated and secured the naming rights for Bonterra Stadium, oversaw the development of several of the school’s athletic fields and worked on the team’s sideline “chain gang” during games.
For Lunsford, who also is a coach at Porter Ridge Middle School, the current state of Pirates football is quite a departure from the early days.
“We’re always on the visitor’s sidelines with the chains,” said Lunsford. “Over the years, we’ve sat there and looked across to empty stands and, really, a coach that looked like he might not have wanted to be there, if you know what I mean. To go from that to the student section and those stands literally from one end to the other being almost a capacity crowd is just unbelievable.”
Lunsford has also seen a shift in the way the program is perceived, especially on the middle-school level. It’s a vital detail since it feeds directly into the high school.
“With those first two years at the middle school, even though we kept those kids motivated and they were having success, it was tough on Thursday and Friday nights at the next field over,” he said. “The eighth-graders who will be freshmen next year – the next JV class – they’re walking on Cloud 9.”
Garrett Hogan, whose son, Conner, is a sophomore on the team, said there was a point before Hardin’s arrival three years ago that his son contemplated only wrestling in high school after playing football throughout middle school. While Conner decided to play, Garrett wonders how many kids didn’t make the same decision.
“You had to wonder if we didn’t lose some kids that just stopped playing football because it was a very disorganized situation and you wouldn’t necessarily reap the benefits of your hard work,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next year or so that we see more kids come out for football because they do see the success and their hard work will pay off for them.”
Porter Ridge athletics director Bill Rogers thinks the impact will continue to be positive.
“I do think we’ll see it grow,” said Rogers. “It’s a good experience to be associated with a team like this.”
Alex Holt, a Pirates lineman, said the success has been a pleasant surprise.
“I had no clue that in high school we could be this good,” said the senior co-captain. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Fellow co-captain Desmond Gillis said that after experiencing life as a Porter Ridge Middle football player, he and his teammates realize the impact this year’s team will have on future generations, win or lose on Friday night.
“We’re setting the bar high for the teams in the future that are going to come along,” he noted.
There are also financial ramifications to the Pirates’ success. According to Rogers, the school sold more than 4,100 tickets to this season’s game against Sun Valley. It was Porter Ridge’s first sellout. At six bucks a pop, plus concessions and T-shirt sales, Lunsford estimated that the school probably made around $30,000 on that game.
This week should bring another big crowd, and Rogers said he and Basden were scheduled to discuss where to cut off ticket sales this week. It’s a new – and very good – problem to have.
Granted, the Sun Valley game was a matchup between neighborhood rivals, which will make the financial total tough to duplicate. It’s also unclear how many fans Davie High will bring since the school’s located near Winston-Salem. But the fact that Friday marks the third home playoff game for the Pirates can’t be understated, especially since many of those funds trickle down to all Porter Ridge athletic teams.
“It’s very gratifying when you have the crowds that you do and you raise some money you can (use) to help wherever we can,” Lunsford said.
Even some local businesses have taken notice.
“I talked to a couple of corporate sponsors, and they’re ready to go all out next fall, and that wouldn’t have happened a few years ago, without a doubt,” said Lunsford.
But again, all this is secondary to being prepared for Davie when the War Eagles pull up to Porter Ridge, said Hardin. Which is why the coach declined to have a pep rally or anything else that would make this game more important than any of the previous 14.
“I want our kids just comfortable and relaxed because they’ve never been there,” said the coach. “I just want them focused on the small things and to treat it as a normal business week. To us, it’s a normal game. It’s a big game, but we’ve got to be ready. There’s nothing we have to do differently to be prepared.”
It’s a logical approach. After all, how can you get caught up in the minutiae of a big game if there isn’t any minutiae? Why should this week’s approach be any different to the one that’s earned them 13 wins so far this year?
For the players, it isn’t. In fact, playing in the fourth round of the state playoffs, amazingly, is exactly what they’ve had in mind all season.
“Ever since Coach Hardin came, it’s been a new program,” said linebacker and co-captain Jon Bryant. “Our goal was to start a new program, so we expected to be here.”
Business as usual.