Charlotte Catholic High can draw student-athletes from a 25-mile radius of the school, and records from the Diocese of Charlotte show that its Catholic population has grown by 15 percent since 2000, to nearly 100,000 people .
Catholic’s athletics teams play in a conference and a state association where opposing schools draw from a much narrower geographic zone.
But is that the reason the Cougars’ football team has been so dominant lately, reaching two of the past four N.C. 4A state championship games?
And, as some critics have claimed, are they recruiting kids from their wider geographic base to come play football in Catholic red and baby blue?
“When you look at our kids and stack them up compared to the Hardings and West Mecklenburgs and Olympics, if we were recruiting, we’re the worst (darn) recruiters in the history of this country,” said Catholic assistant coach Frank Garcia, also a local sports talk radio host and former NFL player with the Carolina Panthers.
“We have hard-nosed kids who fight hard and know what they’re supposed to do. As far as the recruiting thing goes, that’s ridiculous. It really is. It really kind of irritates me, because we go far and beyond to follow the rules.”
To transfer into Charlotte Catholic from an NCHSAA member school, student-athletes must receive approval or sit out an entire year.
Garcia and the Cougars’ coaches have built one of the finest high school programs in North Carolina, and Catholic has a devoted fan base that resembles what you might find at small colleges throughout the Carolinas. And those fans have gotten used to winning:
▪ Catholic has won 51 straight conference games and only has one conference loss in conference since 2003.
▪ Last season, Catholic finished 13-2, reaching the N.C. 4A semifinals. It was the school’s 17th straight winning season. In fact, in 14 of the past 15 years, Catholic has won at least 10 games.
▪ Since 2004, Charlotte Catholic has played in seven N.C. High School Athletic Association championship games, winning three.
Head coach Mike Brodowicz said the 2016 team wasn’t unlike many others he’s coached on in 10 years. He said it was not blessed with Division I college recruits, but with plenty of Division III prospects who listen and have come up in the Catholic school system, hoping for a chance to don the uniform.
Catholic is 3-0 this season and plays host to Ardrey Kell Friday night.
“There’s an accountability here,” Garcia said. “There’s a tradition here and that means the kids don’t want to be the ones to let the community down. We don’t just feel we’re a school. We’re a community that gets behind each other and rallies and supports. Our games are like going to small colleges. We have kids that come back, coaches that come back. It’s fun.”
To transfer into Charlotte Catholic from an NCHSAA member school, student-athletes must receive approval or sit out an entire year. Brodowicz said he’s lost players who played at Catholic and transferred to rival high schools. He said, at least once, a player leaving Catholic was granted a waiver by the state association to avoid another rule in place – a 365-day sitout for a transfer out of Catholic – by saying the family couldn’t afford to pay the $12,000 annual tuition anymore.
Everybody thinks you have to work harder and longer. Sometimes you just have to work smarter. -
Catholic assistant coach Frank Garcia
But what Catholic hasn’t traditionally had are college recruiting’s five-star athletes who bolster nearby programs such as Rock Hill’s South Pointe and Northwestern or Butler High in Matthews or Mallard Creek in north Charlotte. Those are the nearest schools that rival the Cougars’ program in terms of year-over-year success.
So how does Catholic do it?
“I think we have the best coaching staff in the state,” Garcia said. “That’s my honest answer. We put together a program. Everybody thinks you have to work harder and longer. Sometimes you just have to work smarter. We don’t practice on the weekends. We don’t watch film on Saturdays.
“We teach kids at an early age. We bring them up and coach them hard and know what we’re looking for with the guys we have. We have a good eye for talent.”
Brodowicz agrees “The Catholic Blueprint” is the reason for the success. The coaching staff has been together for 11 years. They play a pretty basic defense. On offense, Catholic runs a version of an old-school offense called the Wing T. The secret, the Cougars coaches say, is mastering the things they do well and not veering too far away from it.
“How does the Naval Academy beat Houston and Notre Dame (during the 2016 season),” Brodowicz said. “They’re not in the same spectrum. Notre Dame can get anybody in America. Houston has unbelievable athletes that will play on Sunday. Here is the Naval Academy with good kids who run a difficult offense (similar to Catholic’s) and play great team defense and they win those games.
“Those guys will never, most of them, play another down of football in their life after college. But how do they win? Same way we do. Kids play hard, run a great system and they believe in it. You’ve got a great group of young men playing together.
“Catholic is underestimated for how hard these kids work, how much effort they put in. Our margin is so fine here. We tell the kids that. We try to run the ball, stop the run and we coach toughness. But it only goes so far. We played Mallard Creek twice and they whupped us.
(Mallard Creek coach Mike) Palmieri coaches the same way and they had better talent and they wiped us off the field both times, even when we played them with (former Catholic star and national high school player of the year) Elijah Hood.”
Brodowicz said his team and his school won’t change. He said it follows the state rules – observing the 25-mile boundary, having families apply for admission for any kid coming who is not in the Catholic school system – and works hard. This season, Catholic dropped from 4A, the state’s toughest classification, to 3A.
“The state denies 90 percent of the kids who want to come here already,” Brodowicz said. “Even when a kid moves from Ohio because his parents got transferred from Bank of America and they want a Catholic education, we still have to check with the state. Listen, if we don’t play by the rules, well, too many people want to see us fail.
“But is it fair? I could see where people say it’s 25 miles and Catholic can sway kids and they come in. I could see that argument. But it’s no different than a kid (moving to transfer from one Mecklenburg County public school to another). You go to Mallard Creek, you’re on a national platform and it may get you a $100,000 scholarship. I get why everybody does that. Is that fair? It’s in the eye of the beholder.
“Look at (former Lincolnton High star Sage) Surratt. Three years at (East Lincoln) and, for whatever reason, he goes to the rival high school (for his senior season in 2016-17). Is that fair? Well, they follow the guidelines of the state. We’re not arguing is it fair or not. The state has decided and the membership has voted on this and it’s been approved. It’s a democratic process how it happened.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr