Jalen Latter learned a lot last year but is anxious to start a season without distractions.
Latter, a junior quarterback at Vance, has quick feet and rocket right arm, and has proven he can handle adversity with class.
As a freshman, Latter guided the Cougars to a 5-7 record and a playoff appearance. Latter learned on the fly and, despite taking his lumps along the way, matured to end the year 4-3 as the starter.
Entering last year, Latter again was slated to start for the Cougars. He had a great preseason and held the edge over senior Marc Harris, who, due to team need, played receiver the last two seasons.
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Harris and Latter went back and forth for playing time, and both contributed early in the season. Harris started and led the Cougars to a 29-0 win against Hough to improve the team's record to 3-2. Latter started the next game against Mooresville but was forced out with an injury.
Harris guided the Cougars to a win and started the rest of the year. Vance finished 11-4, including a stunning win against conference rival Mallard Creek, which had not lost and was nationally ranked at the time.
Head coach Phil Culicerto was impressed by how Latter handled himself.
"He's not tucked tail or complained one minute," Culicerto said last season. "That's a lot on a young man like that, being the starter then the backup, and you're just a sophomore. I'm as proud of him as I can be."
Latter said he is ready to be back as the starter and looks forward to his chance to lead the Cougars offense this year.
"I have been working hard this summer on conditioning and getting into football shape," Latter said. "I am trying to get bigger, faster and stronger. We have the chance to be really good this year, and I am excited to get back on the field."
Latter will have plenty of help this year. He says there is talent on both sides of the ball.
"There are a lot of weapons and a lot more athletes on this team. I am looking for a big year from my running back (Larenz Bryant), and I think we have some good receivers who are ready to contribute," Latter said.
Bryant, a junior, will be the workhorse of the offense and is drawing plenty of college interest. Illinois and South Carolina have offered scholarships, and a host of others, including Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, North Carolina, Kentucky and Duke, are interested.
The 6-foot-1 Bryant will be the focal point of opposing defenses, but it will be up to Latter to get the Cougars back to the playoffs.
Mallard Creek will again be favored to win the conference, but Vance gained respect and will have teams gunning for them.
"We are used to being the underdogs," Latter said. "Last year we didn't get a lot of credit going into the season but were able to have a good year. This year will be no different."
"I think it was helpful for me. I learned a lot last year," Latter said. "One thing that I think I can do well is read the defense and see what set they are in from the huddle. Once I know that, I just try to make things happen."
Latter, Bryant and the Cougars know the rematch against Mallard Creek on Sept. 30 could determine the conference title. Vance hopes to prove they belong in any discussion about the best team in the conference.
"I will be a lot better this year. I got the experience the last two years and we had a good season with some big wins," Latter said.
"Win conference and win states - those are the only things on my mind right now."
The Cougars kick off the season Aug. 19 against Phillip O. Berry, which finished 11-3 last year.