You need to think only about the scene following West Charlotte's victory against Mallard Creek two weeks ago to understand how far the Lions' football team has come in the past year.
Coach Aaron Brand ended his post-game congratulatory remarks by thanking his players for clinching at least a tie for the conference championship. The Lions responded with chants of “We love you, coach” while hoisting him above their heads.
Yes, things are rosy at West Charlotte again. After having its strong 2007 season nullified by a player's eligibility, the Lions have won another ME-CA 7 4A championship and are poised for a long playoff run.
West Charlotte entered its Friday first-round playoff game against North Mecklenburg with a 8-3 record and a six-game winning streak.
The 2007 Lions lost a state semifinal game to rival Independence to finish 13-2, but they were forced to forfeit all of their victories after school officials determined that a player used a false address to enroll at West Charlotte. Coach Maurice Flowers resigned after one season.
At the end of May, Brand, a former Independence assistant, was hired. The 34-year old native of South Boston, Va., spent five years as a coach with the Patriots and two at West Mecklenburg after three years as an assistant at Emory Henry College.
The first thing Brand wanted to do with his new players was help them forget what happened to their team in 2007. At a meeting with about 65 of them, Brand told them he was sympathetic, but he said he wouldn't talk about it again.
“He just let us know that we have a whole new season ahead,” said senior linebacker Brandon Grier. And “that we have new obstacles to overcome and that we can't drag last year into this season.”
Last season's ghosts weren't the only obstacles Brand faced. The team had lost many of its players and coaches. Robert Parker (offensive line) and Steve Shipp (wide receivers), a standout Lions' pass catcher in the mid-'90s, were the only assistant coaches retained from last year.
Grier, a 2008 Shrine Bowl pick and big-time college prospect, was West Charlotte's only full-time returning starter, and only a few other players returned to the varsity team.
The first five games went according to script. West Charlotte beat teams they were supposed to – Gastonia Ashbrook and Harding – and lost to teams that were probably superior: East Mecklenburg, Independence and Butler.
After the 34-12 loss to the Bulldogs, a game in which Brand thought the Lions were fairly competitive, he and his staff told his team that they wouldn't lose again in the regular season.
“They lit up,” said Brand. “They thought their coach was kind of a little crazy, but I think they believed me.”
After weather postponements, West Charlotte then won three games in eight days, including a hard-fought 17-14 win at Hopewell. Lopsided shutouts against Concord Robinson and Central Cabarrus set up a first-place showdown at Mallard Creek.
Mallard Creek was embroiled with its own troubles. The school had to forfeit nine games this season after reporting that it used an ineligible player. West Charlotte spotted the Mavericks a 13-0 lead before sophomore Jalen “Scoot” Simmons scored four unanswered touchdowns and finished with a season-high 258 yards rushing.
Last week against Vance, Simmons rushed for 172 yards and scored three touchdowns as West Charlotte won 28-21, clinching its first conference championship since 1999.
Hopefully for West Charlotte, this will be a love story that will have a happy ending.