When West Mecklenburg football coach Jeff Caldwell got to school Friday morning, fresh off one of the biggest wins any West Meck team has ever had, he loved what he saw, he said.
“There was just a nice buzz around school,” Caldwell said. “Everybody was happy and nobody was mad. It was just a real pleasant atmosphere. It was different. It’s been different each week.”
West Mecklenburg is 4-0 for the first time in nine years and beat Independence for the first time in 26 years Friday. Down 13 points to a powerhouse state-championship-caliber team, West Mecklenburg rallied to win 40-33.
And West Meck hasn’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 1997 and ’98.
Since then, Independence has had a 109-game win streak, been to eight state championship games and basically done about as much as any program to fuel North Carolina’s rise to prominence as a powerhouse football state in the past 10 years.
Beating the Patriots was big for West Meck, make no mistake about it.
“The kids expected to win,” Caldwell said. “In the past, it would be like, ‘Y’all are playing so and so, and y’all are gonna get beat.’ And rightfully so. We were growing.
“So it was a big boost to walk around campus last week before the game and know we had some support. It was from everybody: the custodians, the security people, the cafeteria workers.”
West Meck’s 3-0 start was fueled by outscoring three teams 198-6, but those three teams were 0-9 before last week’s games began. The question was, could West Meck play with a heavyweight.
And despite all the hope and good will at school, Caldwell did wonder how his team might respond when the Patriots took a 13-point lead and threatened to turn the showdown into a rout.
“We looked at the kids on the sideline, and Brandon Dixon was trying to find the orange Gatorade,” Caldwell said. “In the past, the kids would drop their heads. (Quarterback) Jalan (McClendon) was hopping around. I looked at Jalan. He said, ‘We’re good, coach.’ I said, ‘We’re good, Jalan.’ It was different. Nobody panicked or argued.”
Led by tailback Shaun Wilson, who ran for 208 yards and three touchdowns, the Hawks rallied on a field where few teams have won since the 2000 season began.
Wilson scored the game-winner with just over two minutes left and sent West Meck into a stratosphere it hasn’t hit since the late ’80s: West Meck is for real and is a serious contender to make a deep, deep playoff run.
“I don’t know if we’re a state championship contender,” Caldwell said, “but we had a good test to see where we stood and the kids fought through adversity, and they played well.”
• McClendon, a senior, has committed to N.C. State. Junior defensive back Van Smith has committed to Clemson. Wilson, a senior running back, has an offer from Appalachian State.
Caldwell said App State coaches tell him that Wilson is the No. 1 player at his position on their recruiting charts. Kansas State is close to offering Wilson, too.
• Butler coach Brian Hales was quoted in the Winston-Salem Journal saying he would take the blame for his team not being ready to play and being slow to start in Friday’s 25-19 loss at 3-1 Mount Tabor. Butler, full of young players who hadn’t played varsity until this season, trailed 25-0.
I think Hales is getting his team ready. Butler’s success ultimately will be measured by the postseason. The Bulldogs have won three of the past four N.C. 4AA state championship games. Hales has put together one of the toughest schedules in the state, knowing he had a young group. He had to know there was a chance that, no matter how well he practiced them last week, Butler might get to Forsyth County, play in front of a huge crowd and not play well.
Butler goes back into the fire next week, playing at Richmond Senior, which remains, to me, one of the top 10 toughest places to play in North Carolina. The end result, though, is that Butler will be tough and battled-tested when the playoffs start in November. Kudos to Hales, a third-year coach, for not worrying about his won-lost record but about developing his players.
• Staying on this theme, I want to applaud the local coaches and athletic directors for putting together all these great early season games. In 25 years, I don’t remember too many seasons like this. Some of it is because the powerhouse teams can’t get anyone else to play them, so they play each other; but for fans it’s much more entertaining to see Butler-Richmond or Mallard Creek-Catholic or Northwestern-Byrnes than to pay your money and watch a game you know will be 60-0 before you eat breakfast Friday morning.