University City

Northside Christian Academy takes to gridiron for 1st time since 2009

Michael Little, left, and Tanner Tally practice a blocking drill along with the rest of the Northside Christian Academy football team.
Michael Little, left, and Tanner Tally practice a blocking drill along with the rest of the Northside Christian Academy football team. JOE HABINA

The last time Northside Christian Academy fielded a varsity football team, its current students weren’t even in high school.

So, when Northside travels to Fayetteville Christian for its first official high school football game since 2009, the Knights will understand the significance of the night.

“We will bring a lot of school spirit back to the school,” said Isaiah Best, a senior receiver/defensive back. “It used to be just basketball, but other sports are doing better too, including football.”

School officials folded the program six years ago because of a lack of players. Varsity participation isn’t much higher this season than it was in 2009. But head coach Greg Tally says he can build a strong system over the next few years by drawing students’ interest when they are in middle school.

This year, Northside will field high school varsity and middle school teams. It’s a culmination of the University City-based Christian school’s decision in 2012 to rebuild the football program.

Northside will play as a Division III independent in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association, meaning is not affiliated with a conference. The Knights’ first home game with be Sept. 11 against Monroe’s Central Academy of Technology and Arts (CATA).

When the program folded after the 2009 season, the number of players on the roster was under 25. There were plans to play in 2010 but not enough players were interested. The head coach was Brentson Buckner, a former Carolina Panther.

Three years ago, Northside hired Greg Estep, the brother of Charlotte Christian head coach Jason Estep, to lead the Knights re-emergence. Administration’s plan was to field a middle school team in 2013 and have it graduate to a high school junior varsity team in 2014.

Estep accepted a job in his native Ohio before he ever coached a game at Northside. The school hired Tally to replace Estep who worked with the new coach for about two months to make the transition smoother.

Tally was a nonfaculty assistant coach at Mallard Creek High for four years. In addition to working under Mavericks head coach Mike Palmieri, Tally assisted offensive coordinator Aaron Brand, who is now the head coach at Vance High. Tally served as his quarterbacks coach.

Tally was hired at Northside in May 2013. His middle school team that fall had about 25 players. Tally says he was optimistic going into the season and was pleased with the Knights’ 4-4 record.

Last year, Northside’s junior varsity team was comprised of seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders, just like the teams they played. Playing established programs like Concord First Assembly, SouthLake Christian, and Metrolina Christian, the Knights finished with a 5-3 record.

Upper classmen were not permitted to play on the junior varsity team. So, this year, juniors and seniors are getting their first chance to play at Northside since 2009.

There are 25 players on this year’s varsity team including six seniors and four juniors. The Knights are an eclectic bunch. Some have been with the program since 2013, some are upperclassmen waiting their turn to play, and some are brand new as transfers.

Among the transfers are Tally’s son Tanner, a junior defensive back who played at Mallard Creek, junior lineman Tyshaun Miller who played at North Mecklenburg, and former Harrisburg Hickory Ridge tight end/linebacker Cameron McGee, a senior.

“One of the biggest differences (between schools) is the size of the school,” said Miller. “I feel like there’s more of an excitement at Northside. Coach Tally brings a lot of electricity to the field and to the weight room.”

McGee’s younger brother Conor played on the Knights junior varsity team as a freshman last year. As one of the team’s two quarterbacks, Conor helped compile 1,000 yards rushing and passing.

“We put up a lot of points,” he said. “Offensively, we countered everything the defense set up against us.”

Northside’s other quarterback is Frank Crockett, a strong-armed sophomore who passed for 1,200 yards last year. Tally expects to have both players in the offensive backfield at the same time.

Other key returning players are sophomore tight end/defensive end James Kostrzynski and freshman center/defensive tackle/linebacker Blake Ferguson. They combined for 13 sacks last season.

Joe Habina is a freelance writer: