When Community School of Davidson football coach T.J. Albert was looking at his roster for the 2015 season, he saw the makings of a pretty good team.
Just how good the Spartans would be turned out to be a surprise to just about everyone – except Albert.
In just its third year, the Community School of Davidson football team not only posted its first winning season, finishing 12-3, it capped the year by advancing to the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A Western Regional championship game.
The Spartans fell just three points shy of advancing to the NCHSAA 1A state championship game, losing to Robbinsville in the regional final 30-27.
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Had Community School of Davidson won the regional, it would have been the first charter school to make it to the NCHSAA’s state championship game in football.
“We felt early on that we had a real shot at it,” said Albert, the Spartans’ coach since the program’s inception in 2013. “Of course, the big unknown was how they would play once they got into the playoffs. But the kids played great – we didn’t give up a point until the third round.”
While Albert had confidence that Community School of Davidson would have a winning program this season, it took a pair of nonconference losses – to North Mecklenburg, one of the biggest schools in the state; and four-time N.C. private school state champion Davidson Day – to convince him the Spartans were capable of more.
“It started to become believable for us after the North Meck game,” Albert said of CSD’s 35-0 loss to the Vikings. “Even though the score kind of got out of hand, the kids really competed hard in the first half.
“If we could compete against those guys, there’s really nobody at the 1A level that we couldn’t compete against. Once we got into our conference, then we felt really good about our chances.”
It also took overcoming some early-season injuries to key personnel – but that may have been a blessing in disguise.
Senior Toby Sharp, last year’s starting quarterback, went out of action early with an illness. But his replacement, sophomore Luke Watts, threw for more than 2,100 yards and 24 touchdowns this season.
“As crazy as it sounds, it’s probably the best thing that happened to us,” Albert said. “But Toby stepped up for us and played lights out at defensive end and offensive tackle. We needed the help on our lines, and he turned out to be one of our best linemen, especially on the defensive line.”
That took a lot of the load off of senior running back Joey Bernardini, an all-Observer selection in 2014 after he rushed for 2,134 yards and a Mecklenburg County-best 29 touchdowns. This season, Bernardini finished with nearly 2,200 rushing yards and 28 TDs and ended his career at CSD with more than 5,200 rushing yards and 64 touchdowns.
“If we could figure out a way to get the ball downfield (passing) … we were going to be pretty difficult to defend, because everybody was going to gear up for Joey,” Albert said.
“When we saw Luke throwing the ball early on, we found a guy who could stretch the field. That made our offense pretty dangerous.”
Community School of Davidson, which finished 5-7 last season and lost in the first round of the 1A state playoffs, went on to run the table in the Southern Piedmont 1A, going undefeated and winning its first conference title.
After taking dominating wins over South Stanly and Andrews in the first two rounds of the 1A state playoffs, outscoring their opponents 78-0, the Spartans had their first tough test in the third round, beating conference rival Thomas Jefferson Academy 33-28.
That put Community School of Davidson into the 1A Western Regional final – and a rough start against Robbinsville. The Spartans fell behind 24-0 before the end of the second quarter before rallying behind three TD passes from Watts to Holden Rizzo cut the margin to 24-21 at the half.
Community School of Davidson went on to briefly lead in the fourth quarter before losing, but it’s what happened after that loss that has Albert encouraged about the future of the Spartans’ program.
“My juniors came in this week and said, ‘Coach, let’s get back to work; we want to get back there next year,’” Albert said. “Instead of having a bunch of kids moping around, we’ve got a bunch of kids who are saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got to get back to work, get better for next year and get back to that (regional). Let’s not only get back to that semifinal, let’s take the next step and get to the state championship.’”
Bill Kiser is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.