Tony Huggins has been athletics director at Garinger High for five years. He’s never seen his football team win.
“That was one of my goals when I got here,” Huggins said. “I wanted to see a win on the football field. It’s hard not winning games, year-in and year-out, and having running clocks. But one thing I can say: Going on year five, we haven’t had one single game, where the kids walked off and said, ‘I quit. I hate this school. I hate this team.’
“Each year, it’s like, ‘I can’t wait until next year. We’ll get better.’ But these kids need a little hope. Just a little hope.”
Huggins said he actively sought to give his team just that, which led him to schedule a game Friday at Monroe’s Central Academy.
Unlike their first three games this season, when Garinger was shut out by West Charlotte, Harding and West Mecklenburg, the Wildcats will play a team with similar size and numbers. Central Academy (0-3) has a 12-game losing streak dating to last year and has scored once in 2017.
So the week leading to Friday’s game has been a little different around Garinger. The Wildcats’ players might say, “We can beat Mallard Creek” or “We can beat Myers Park” in the days leading to games against such ranked teams, but they know it’s probably unlikely.
This week, Garinger High -- to a man -- believes.
“We all feel that,” said Garinger junior linebacker Elijah Richardson, 16. “And if we win? Man, I’m not going to lie. That would feel really great. Garinger has not won in awhile and to be a member of the team that won, it would feel real great.
“I would be able to sleep well at night and be able to try to work next week for another win.”
Richardson and the Wildcats have lost 55 straight games, four short of the N.C. record held by Gumberry (1972-78). But it wasn’t always this way.
Garinger won the 4A state championship in 1959, the year the northeast Charlotte school opened. In the Wildcats’ first three seasons, they went 29-4. But since 1980, Garinger has had five winning seasons, including back-to-back winning seasons in 1989 and ’90.
And after 1990, winning has been especially difficult.
In the past 26 seasons, Garinger has had four losing streaks of 18 games or more, including a 30-game slide between 1997-1999 and a 26-game slide from 1990-1993. In 13 of those 26 seasons, Garinger didn’t win a game. And, probably not surprisingly, Garinger has had 13 coaches in those 26 seasons.
Jeff Caldwell, 51, is the latest in the coaching carousel. A 1984 Myers Park graduate who played wide receiver at N.C. Central, this isn’t his first reclamation project.
West Mecklenburg was 1-10 the year before Caldwell arrived in 2009. By his third year, the Hawks won nine games. West Meck did it again in his fourth. The Hawks had not had back-to-back winning seasons in 15 years.
In 2012, West Mecklenburg reached the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1989.
“We just want to build a positive, successful program, something sustainable, like we did at West Meck,” said Caldwell, who resigned from West Meck after the 2015 season. “It’s something that can be done, but the reality is it takes hard work, vision, people who want to be here and deal with kids.
“Listen, I’ve been in sales before. I have heard ‘no’ before. I can take ‘no’s.’ Kids say, ‘I don’t want to play,’ I can work with that.”
When Caldwell told friends he was considering applying for the Garinger job, he said many tried to talk him out of it.
“People are afraid to put something on the line,” Caldwell said. “I’m not afraid to put (my coaching) record on the line. Don’t be looking for accolades. Help the kids. Somebody has to help the kids.”
Huggins said his coach and staff are doing just that, noting that a year ago Garinger lost 22 football players to academics. This year, it lost six.
“For us,” he said, “that’s a win.”
Huggins said he is sensing some momentum at Garinger. It started with Caldwell’s hiring in January. And he knew he needed to find a game against an opponent the Wildcats were capable of beating to end the dreaded losing streak.
Interestingly, he had a difficult time. Huggins knew he needed to play a smaller school. Garinger ended last season with 27 players and has 32 now, about half the size of the typical Mecklenburg County 4A team.
But when he called around, there was little interest.
“People said, ‘Tony, y’all will kill us,’ ” Huggins said of several smaller schools he contacted. “I offered one school $1,000 to play us. They wouldn’t play. But we needed a game like this. The kids are excited about Caldwell, but we’ve not turned the corner yet until the kids see us play a game we have a chance to win or we actually win.
“Knowing we’ve got Central Academy on the schedule next year as well is drumming up some excitement.”
Garinger’s leading rusher, 16-year-old junior Jaden Gamble, said he’s certainly excited about the possibility of winning Friday night.
“It’s really tough to always lose,” he said. “I’ll be honest. Just to see all the work you put in and the downfall comes to a (loss). But this week, I know for sure we can win. My mindset is different than the other weeks going into a game.
“My team feels great, coaches feel great. We’re just trying to get right.”
And if the Wildcats finally win in Union County Friday night?
“It’s going to be a heartwarming moment for everybody at Garinger,” Gamble said. “Not just me, but everybody at Garinger.”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr