MOUNT ULLA The story of West Rowan's football dynasty is a tale that includes three straight 3A state championships and the possibility of a fourth on Saturday.
It involves a dynamic coach named Scott Young who had a heart attack in October on a Monday night and still showed up to coach Friday night's game.
It includes a significant contribution from former N.C. State (and West Rowan) basketball player Scooter Sherrill, who helped change the football culture at the school.
And it can't be told without acknowledging the influence of a blue-collar small town that could be the setting for a John Mellencamp song.
West Rowan High is 40 miles northeast of uptown Charlotte, but it feels further away than that in terms of space and time. The Falcons started playing football in 1960, shortly after the school opened. Neither the low-slung buildings, nor the antiquated locker rooms, nor the stadium that seats about 2,500 fans on most home Friday nights has changed much since then.
But the number of victories? That has changed a lot.
The Falcons boasted a three-year, 46-game winning streak - the longest in America at the time - until Mooresville broke it in the 2011 season opener.
West Rowan recovered from that loss and another defeat three games later to advance to Saturday's 11 a.m. state championship game at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill against Havelock.
A win Saturday will be difficult - 15-0 Havelock, from the eastern part of the state, has averaged an astonishing 60 points per game in its four playoff victories. But if it happens, it would give West Rowan (13-2) a fourth consecutive 3A title.
A few of West Rowan's seniors have literally had every one of their football seasons conclude in a game to decide a state championship. Said linebacker Troy Culbertson, one of those seniors: "This is a place full of tradition. And a lot of that history has been made in the past four years."
The scenario would have been hard to believe up until the late 1990s. West Rowan athletics director Todd Bell, 37, knows that firsthand. He once played football at a rival Rowan County high school.
"Back in the day, West Rowan was almost a laughingstock in football," Bell said. "You wanted them on your schedule because that was just about a guaranteed victory."
That's no longer true. Since Young arrived in 1998, taking the head coaching job at age 26, West Rowan has steadily ascended to become one of the state's top programs.
Young points to one item early in his tenure as a watershed moment.
In 1998, his first season, the Falcons went 3-8. The school (current enrollment: 1,080) was known more for its boys' basketball teams, led at the time by future N.C. State starter and high school All-American Scooter Sherrill.
"In 1999, I was able to get Scooter Sherrill onto the football field," Young said, "and that changed the culture of this school forever. He made it OK for elite basketball athletes to come play football. We went from 3-8 to 8-3 in 1999; we've not had a losing season since."
Sherrill only played his senior season - as a wide receiver and wildcat quarterback as he stayed in shape for basketball - but it left a lasting impression. This season 10 West Rowan players are doubling up on the varsity basketball and football teams.
Coaching from the hospital
Young's constant sideline presence for the past 14 years has helped ensure success, along with the fact his assistant coaches have also stayed loyal to the East Rowan graduate. But that constancy threatened to change on Oct. 24, when Young woke up at 11:48 p.m. - he remembers the time exactly - at home with a terrible pain in his chest.
"I was having a heart attack," said Young, who is 40. "I knew it, and I didn't want to wait on an ambulance. I took two aspirin and drove myself to the hospital."
It was a risky idea, because Young left his wife and their three children (ages 12, 9 and six months) at home. He drove the 10 minutes to the hospital by himself, made it there and was quickly diagnosed with 100 percent blockage in one of his arteries.
He underwent a procedure to put in two stents - small mesh tubes used to treat narrow or weakened arteries - within an hour.
Immediately, Young felt better, although he did stay in the hospital for a couple of days.
"But he was coaching from the hospital, too," Bell said. "Football is in his blood."
The West Rowan assistants shouldered more of the load, but Young decided he couldn't stay away that Friday night.
He coached from the press box rather than his usual sideline spot as West Rowan beat West Iredell for the conference championship. He resumed his full sideline duties the next week.
At 6 feet and 235 pounds, Young said he knows he's somewhat overweight.
"I think the primary factors for my heart attack were No. 1 heredity and No. 2, I ate horribly," he said. "It was fast food, burgers, fries, pizza - stuff like that just about every night."
Young said in the five weeks since his heart attack he hasn't touched fast food or pizza and has become a regular at Subway.
The Mount Ulla melting pot
There's no actual mountain in Mount Ulla, but there are some hills, some picturesque fields and a lot of hard-working people.
"We're a blue-collar community," said Bell, the athletics director and a former West Rowan football assistant. "A lot of people drive into Mooresville or Salisbury to work. There are a lot of farms - a lot of soybeans, corn and wheat.
"Sometimes on the practice field it's like a dust bowl when the combine is coming through at one of the farms. You just turn your head, wait for the dust to go by and then run another play."
Said Young: "Socio-economically, we have dirt-poor kids, wealthy kids and farm kids who live on real, working dairy farms and such. It's that melting pot that helps us be successful."
West Rowan has no shortage of talent, either. Graduates such as Kevin Parks (Virginia), Chris Smith (Arkansas) and Jonathan Crucitti (Navy) made significant impacts on their college teams this season.
The 2010 West Rowan team had 12 seniors who earned some sort of football scholarship at either the Division II level or higher.
Senior tailback Dinkin Miller has rushed for 2,438 yards and 25 touchdowns in Young's multiple-I system this season (the coach likes to run the ball close to 70 percent of the time).
Senior quarterback Zay Laster, who used to be a backup at Mallard Creek before his father got a job at West Rowan and Laster transferred for his final season, has accounted for 27 touchdowns (11 rushing, 16 passing).
Defensive lineman Greg Dixon and wide receiver Jarvis Morgan are Division I prospects.
Still, this West Rowan team has been beaten twice - the 2009 and 2010 teams were undefeated. Said Culbertson, the linebacker: "It was devastating to lose that first game. But even the greatest get knocked down. You have to try to step back up. We knew after that loss we couldn't ride on the shirt tails of those from the past couple of years."
On Saturday, the Falcons will try to win one more time in Chapel Hill against mighty Havelock. Even though the game kicks off at 11 a.m., the West Rowan players won't spend tonight in a hotel.
They will simply get up early, head to the high school for breakfast and get on a bus. Young thinks his players don't do as well in hotels - that they will sleep better in their own beds, secure in their dreams of football glory.
Fowler: 704-358-5140; firstname.lastname@example.org
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