As Providence High’s football players were getting off the bus to play Charlotte Latin in a 7-on-7 scrimmage this week, longtime Latin coach Larry McNulty noticed something different about the 2014 Panthers’ team.
“They seemed so much more physically developed,” McNulty said. “They were much more muscular, both in the upper and lower body. They’ll be way more physical than they were. Holy cow. They’ve definitely made strides.”
Panthers second-year coach Justin Hardin had one big goal in the off-season: He wanted his team to get better conditioned and stronger. And Hardin believes he’s hit on both goals. As high school football practice officially begins in North Carolina Friday, Hardin is excited about his team, which returns 16 starters and six all-conference players from last season. Providence was 8-5 in 2013. That was the school’s first winning season since 2009 and its most wins since 2006.
At off-season practice this week, Panthers players talked confidently about an even better season in 2014. Hardin said that’s part of the plan.
“It’s about changing the culture here,” he said. “It’s about the conditioning part, the weight room part and learning how to practice and how to be physical. Those are things we preach. Last year, we weren’t very strong, and if you’re going to play teams like Butler and Independence and Mallard Creek, those guys live in the weight room. We had to change. We had to look like football players. Last year, when we played Mallard Creek, our three starting linebackers were all about 175 pounds. Now, they’re 205, almost 210. They look better. They’re stronger. They’re moving faster. And if we’re going to compete in the big 4A, that’s where we’ve got to be.”
Since November, barely after Providence ended its 2013 season, Hardin has had the team lifting hard and running often. He spearheaded a movement to get a new floor added in the weight room. He had the players running multiple 400- and 200-meter dashes two or three times per week. Senior quarterback Caleb York compared it to running for the Panthers’ track team.
“I’ve never been so tired and never gone through so many pairs of clothes in my life,” York said. “The program is crazy and practice is so high tempo. We don’t have the best athletes in Charlotte, so it’s important that we can hit all game long. Coach sells that we have to be the most conditioned team out there.”
Hardin’s approach has impressed area coaches, including McNulty and former Olympic, West Charlotte and Chester (S.C.) coach Maurice Flowers. Flowers, who now trains area players, has been a college quarterback and twice a college offensive coordinator. Watching Hardin work, he said, is much like watching a college practice.
“It’s the organization, the teaching and the tempo,” Flowers said. “A lot of people don’t practice that way. As a coach, you appreciate when you see good practices. When I went to see Providence, I was very impressed. There’s no standing around, and the kids are enthused about being there, and I could tell the coaches were on the same page.”
Hardin, who previously coached at Weddington and was an assistant at Rock Hill South Pointe, said he wants to build a consistent winner at Providence, which opened in 1989. The school has had 10 winning seasons in its history and hasn’t had three in a row since Hardin’s father, Bruce, went 29-11 from 2001-03. Bruce Hardin is now head coach at nearby Providence Day School.
Part of building a champion, Justin Hardin said, is playing tough competition. Providence’s preseason schedule includes a home game against N.C. state power Independence Aug. 13, and a road game at S.C. state power Rock Hill South Pointe Aug. 15.
The Panthers kick off the season Aug. 22 against S.C. state power Summerville and legendary coach John McKissick.
“Providence is a great place,” Justin Hardin said. “It’s been a great school in Charlotte and has a great tradition in football and other sports. We have great kids here. It’s why I came. My dad gave me advice about Providence as a school, and I remember his time here, and once we got here, it was ‘How can we put Providence back on the map as far as football.’”
Hardin has hired a speed coach, former Independence all-state defensive back Josh McClure, and he’s installed the same conditioning program he ran successfully at Weddington. With the wealth of returning talent, and the Panthers’ commitment to get stronger and faster, Hardin believes his team has a real shot at a first conference championship since 2003, when his father led the Panthers to an undefeated record in league play.
“Our conference (the SoMeck 8) will be very balanced,” Hardin said, “but it will be competitive. Week by week, each game will be really big for us, but we can compete for a conference championship.”
York, the quarterback, believes the Panthers can do even more.
“I believe we are all confident we can win conference,” he said. “I feel we’re confident we can win state. I’m not calling out other teams because we’ll have great competition, but I feel we’re ready to compete with the best teams in North Carolina.”
Wertz: 704-612-9716; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr