Austin Kendall knows he’s got one more chance to bring a state football championship back to Cuthbertson High.
But Kendall, a four-star recruit at quarterback, also knows that he can’t do it alone – how the Cavaliers’ returnees and newcomers perform this season will be the difference between success and failure.
“They’ve all got another year under their belt,” Kendall said. “They’ve all been in the weight room more, so they’re bigger and stronger and faster. We’ve got more experience, too.”
Cuthbertson – which opens the 2015 season ranked No. 13 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll – returns 15 starters, one of whom plays both ways, and 27 seniors from last year’s team, which finished 11-4 and advanced to the semifinals of the NCHSAA 3AA state championships.
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“Plus we have a lot of kids who saw significant minutes last year,” said David Johnson, who is entering his third season as the Cavaliers’ head coach.
“Austin is going to be in the spotlight, but it’s really a machine – it takes all the parts working together for us to be as successful as we were last year.”
The No. 1 piece of that machine is Kendall, the state’s top quarterback last season. The Oklahoma signee threw for 4,461 yards and 49 touchdowns, and led Cuthbertson on a 10-game winning streak after opening 1-3.
“We started out really slow (last year),” said Kendall, ranked No. 8 in the nation among high school quarterbacks by ESPN. “We didn’t know each other, but that connection developed. We didn’t click until about the third (loss), then we started winning non-stop.”
The Cavaliers have seven other starters returning on offense, led by junior wide receivers J.T. Cauthen (104 receptions, 1,451 yards, 13 touchdowns) and Casey Stamper (44-425, two TDs); and senior running back Byron Gaymon (592 rushing yards, three TDs).
Also back are four starters on the offensive line – senior Connor Kelligrew, juniors Josh Geiger and Alex Karras, and sophomore Bryce Blackwood.
“We know that football is a team sport,” said Cauthen, a MaxPreps.com sophomore All-American last season. “We learned a lot from last year. We lost our first few games, but we started to click more and win more games. We’re going to try to do the same this year.”
Cuthberson is nearly as experienced defensively, with eight returning starters – senior Jared Smith and juniors Howard Lowery and Dyanta Caldwell on the line; Kelligrew and fellow seniors Matt Panko and Nolan Butler at linebacker; senior Peter Ausiello at safety and sophomore Cade Vela at cornerback.
“We know we’ve got to make the stops, because we know our offense can score on every single drive,” Kelligrew said.
While the Cavaliers are focused on the 2015 season, which begins Aug. 21 against former state private school champion Victory Christian, there are some reminders of last year.
“We’ve really been going at it in our morning workouts,” Cauthen said, “ever since Coach Johnson put up those pictures in the weight room, just to remind us what that one less rep can do to you on the field. It means a lot, even if you don’t think it does.”
The photos are from Cuthbertson’s 24-21 loss to county rival Weddington in last year’s playoff – a loss that that still sticks with Kendall and his teammates.
“We definitely have a taste in our mouths coming back together this year,” Kendall said. “Losing in the last seconds like we did, nobody wants to go through that.”
Said Kelligrew: “It’s a reminder of how it felt to lose like that in the last second. We’ve got to step up this year and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”