When Mike Natoli took over as head coach at Independence High in 2017, he was the Patriots’ fourth head coach in as many seasons. He knew he had a tough job ahead of him.
Independence had once been the most feared and most successful program in the long history of N.C. football. The Patriots won seven straight state championships from 2000-06 and reached eight straight state championship games. Along the way, Independence had a 109-game win streak and developed some of the best players and best teams in state history.
After legendary coach Tom Knotts left in 2009, the Patriots slowly slid back to the back. From 1995-2015, Independence never had a losing record. In 2016, Independence was 2-9.
In 2017, Natoli’s first season, the Patriots were again 2-9.
But Natoli really believed he could make Independence relevant again, despite the school not getting the type talent it used to get as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools redrew attendance lines, a new school in Mint Hill opened (Rocky River) and parents and players were attracted to new powers like Hough and Mallard Creek developing in the northern part of the county.
And just down the street, Independence’s arch rival, Butler, won three state titles and was building its own state power.
“I wouldn’t take the job if I didn’t think it was possible,” Natoli said. “Like I told our kids a few weeks ago, it takes a very special group of young men to turn a program around anywhere in the country. Most times, programs that don’t do well continue to not do well because it’s hard to find 40 special kids nowadays who are willing to stick to it, not transfer and not listen to all the haters outside.
“That’s a tough thing for 15-, 16-, 17-year-old kids to do. And for our kids to do what they’ve done besides all the noise and distractions is encouraging.”
Independence has already topped its win total from last season. The Patriots are 3-1 heading into Saturday’s 5 p.m. Southwestern 4A conference opener with Hickory Ridge (2-2). The teams will play at UNC Charlotte.
It’s the type feature game the Patriots used to always play in during their heyday. Now, it’s the type of game that shows the Patriots that they’re on the right path.
“We’re playing a lot better than last year, just from a football standpoint,” Natoli said. “We’ve had 11/2 years to put our offense in. But we’re really young. Most people don’t understand that. We have four seniors that start. Everybody else is sophomores and juniors.”
Natoli said most teams Independence plays will be older and therefore likely bigger, faster and stronger than his group. But he likes where Independence is heading.
He thinks he has the right group of kids to flip his program’s fortunes.
“I think if we keep this team together, this could be the group,” he said. “Just with all they’ve overcome. We’ve still got a long way to go, but they’ve shown us so much. They’ve proved a lot so far.”