City News

Garinger looking to have a breakthrough season

Garinger senior Jordan Freeman, left, and coach Percell Gaskins hope they can help the Wildcats show dramatic improvement in 2015.
Garinger senior Jordan Freeman, left, and coach Percell Gaskins hope they can help the Wildcats show dramatic improvement in 2015. GARINGER HIGH SCHOOL

Garinger football coach, Percell Gaskins, says his team can become a consistent winner – again.

The Wildcats have lost 30 games in a row dating back to the 2011 season-finale (a 16-14 win against Harding), including an 0-10 season last year. The second-year head coach has predicted, however, that Garinger will finish third in the Southwestern 4A conference behind Independence and Butler.

“Everybody’s predicting what we are going to do (based on) what Garinger teams have done in the recent past, but we are not going to be chained to that past,” Gaskins said. “We actually have a rich, rich football tradition at Garinger. I mean, you have the guy who made ‘The Catch’, and a lot more. We want to restart that tradition.

Gaskins was referring to Garinger alum Dwight Clark, who played for the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers and made a key touchdown catch in the 1982 NFC championship game that sent the team to the Super Bowl.

“I just won’t buy into the fact that there isn’t something great here,” Gaskins said. “I’m going to do everything I can do to help these guys bring it back.”

Gaskins’ staff includes Don Sasa, who had stints with the Panthers, San Diego Chargers and the NFL franchise in Washington, D.C.

Gaskins, 42, is a former Kansas State linebacker who played for the St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers in the NFL.

Gaskins said he knows his team’s transformation won’t happen overnight. The Wildcats haven’t seen the results of their work pay off on the field – yet; but Gaskins, his staff and the team have made a lot of strides on and off the field, according to senior running back Jordan Freeman.

Freeman says the culture has changed.

“Coach Gaskins and the entire coaching staff have made a huge impact here already,” said Freeman, who, at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds, rushed for 900 yards last season and had 500 yards receiving. “In the past, players would show up to practice whenever they wanted to, cuss out the coaches, come to games and practices high and nothing happened.

“But we are committed to changing the whole atmosphere.… When you Google ‘Garinger,’ I want people to be able to read about a great football team, not about another shooting.”

This year, Garinger had their first full offseason program in recent memory, highlighted by a three-week visit from former NFL star wide receiver Randy Moss, who now lives in Charlotte. Moss said he contacted Gaskins and asked to come work out with the team and advise them.

Moss did everything from teach players about fundamentals to offer his advice about life.

“Nobody told Randy Moss to come over here and spend time with us. It was just something he wanted to do, and it meant a lot to all of us,” said Gaskins, who also got a donation of 2,000-3,000 pounds of weight room equipment from Myers Park Athletic Director Rick Lewis. “Randy didn’t want any cameras here, he just wanted to be here for the kids. It was very inspiring to see him echo a lot of the same things (Garinger coaches) have been talking about. When a player like him talks to kids, it really speaks to their hearts.

“That was a huge boost to our offseason. The offseason is everything, because that’s where you win and lose games. If you wait until Friday night (in the season), it’s too late.”

Gaskins says his numbers are up from 30-35 players this time last year to about 55 now at workouts.

The Wildcats are seeing 29 players return, six of them starters, including Freeman, linebacker Lance Gibbs (6-0, 205) and offensive/defensive linemen Phenius Fields (5-11, 250) and Jonuel Pagan (6-0, 230).

Garinger also hopes to field their first junior varsity team this year in nearly two decades.

“We want to build this program from the ground up, like many of the great teams such as Butler, Mallard Creek, etc., have done in the recent past,” said Gaskins. “To do that, we are going to have to have a JV team, where we can develop guys from their freshman year.”

Gaskins says what he most hopes to accomplish goes beyond the football field.

“My focus is on growing these young men from the inside out, and that’s our number one goal,” he said. “We feel like if we can help our players become great young men, both academically, socially and athletically, then the wins will take care of themselves.”

Freeman agrees one can’t measure success this year in wins and losses alone, but he says a win on the field would mean a lot, especially the seniors.

“We’ve come a long way in the last year in a lot of ways that don’t have anything to with football and that is important,” Freeman said. “But we want to shock the world and have a good season.

“But first, we have to get one win. To get a victory would mean so much to this team, but also be a smack in the face to all of those people who doubt us. Our goal is to help totally change what people think about Garinger.”

Jay Edwards is a freelance writer:

Charlotte-area prep football preview

Mallard Creek football has dominated the competition in the past two seasons, going 31-1 and winning back-to-back 4A state titles.

Coach Mike Palmier’s Mavericks have outscored opponents an average of 51-15 in that time.

This year, with 12 starters returning, led by reigning Charlotte Observer Player of the Year senior quarterback James Smith, they have a lot of reasons to believe they can take a third title.

Many local teams, however, will be looking to knock the Mavericks off, including Vance, which went 11-4 and advanced to the 4A state semifinals in coach Aaron Brand’s first season.

Meanwhile, other local teams look to prove they can make moves in their head coaches’ second years, including East Mecklenburg (Barry Shuford), Garinger (Percell Gaskins), Myers Park (Scott Chadwick) and Olympic (Keith Wilkes).

West Charlotte’s Darren Hart and Harding’s Samuel Greiner seek success in their first year as coaches at their respective schools, and Greg Tally leads Northside Christian in its first year as a varsity program.

Top teams

Mallard Creek: State champions have a lot of reasons to believe they can three-peat, starting with QB James Smith and LB Josh Brown.

Vance: Coach Aaron Brand guided the Cougars to the 4A state semifinal in his first year in charge and has the talent to make a similar run.

Rocky River: The Ravens have won 27 games in the last three seasons, proving they can hang in the conference, but with only four starters returning they will have to prove they can reload quickly.

Olympic: Trojans coach Keith Wilkes is known for producing winners and looks to prove that again this season after going 5-6 in his first year at Olympic (2014).

West Charlotte: The Lions have been through a lot the past season with the death of former coach Mo Collins. With 17 starters returning, they look to bring back the winning tradition.

Top players

▪ James Smith, Mallard Creek, Sr., QB (5-11, 185): Looks to be better than he was as a junior, when he passed for 3,357 yards and 35 touchdowns and ran for another 1,350 yards and 25 scores. Division I recruit is 26-1 as starting Maverick quarterback.

▪ Josh Brown, Mallard Creek, Sr. LB (6-4, 225): Florida State commit is a game-changer for the Maverick defense, selected to U.S. Army All-American game in January next year.

▪ Myles Dorn, Vance, Sr., WR/DB (6-3, 195): Cougars standout is one of the top players in the Observer area, with 19 touchdown catches last year and 75 tackles and six interceptions on defense, where teammate Anthony Butler (6-2, 195) has 100-plus tackles as a junior. Both are Division I recruits, according to Vance coach Aaron Brand.

▪ JaMykal Neal, Myers Park, Jr., OL/DL (6-3, 290): Three-year starter can dominate the line of scrimmage and is already a major Division I recruit, according to head coach Scott Chadwick.

▪ Marlon Dunlap, West Charlotte, Sr., DT (6-4, 280): All-conference defensive tackle headlines a stout Lions defense that returns eight starters; also a Division I recruit.

Players on the rise

▪ Thad Moss, Mallard Creek, Sr., TE/DE (6-4, 250): Former Victory Christian all-state performer will have an immediate effect on a loaded Mavericks team.

▪ Khalil Gilliam, East Mecklenburg, So., QB (6-2, 190): Eagles quarterback went through usual growing pains as a freshman starter, but East Meck coach Barry Shuford looks for him to make big strides in year two.

▪ Jordan Freeman, Garinger, Sr., RB/DB (5-10, 175): Multitalented athlete is back to lead Wildcats after rushing for 900 yards and racking up more than 500 yards receiving last season.

▪ Marquis Robinson, Olympic, Sr. RB (5-11, 205): Trojans’ tailback will play an even bigger role on an Olympic that likes to run the ball.

▪ Kendall Lewis, Rocky River, Jr., WR (6-1, 180)/Eugene Alexander, Harding, Sr. (5-10, 185): Ravens’ wideout will become more of a go-to guy for his team, while Alexander is back to lead an improved, Harding team under center.

Must see games

▪ Myers Park vs. Charlotte Country Day, Aug. 22: These two schools meet for the first time in the kickoff classic at Memorial Stadium, pitting former Myers Park defensive coordinator Drew Witman in his first game as Country Day head coach, versus his old boss, Mustangs head coach Scott Chadwick.

▪ Independence vs. Mallard Creek, Aug. 22: Two of the state’s best programs meet in the second game of the doubleheader at Memorial Stadium, which will set an early tone for both teams.

▪ Harding at West Charlotte, Sept. 4: The game is always great between these two rivals, but the battle of two teams’ bands is even better.

▪ Mallard Creek at Vance, Oct. 16: This game will likely decide the MECKA 4A conference championship, determine who gets a high seed in playoffs.

▪ East Mecklenburg at Myers Park, Nov. 6: One of Charlotte’s oldest rivalries could decide one or both teams’ postseason fate in the final week of the regular season.

Compiled by Jay Edwards