The lowest of lows is an inspiration to Vance High’s Cougars.
After losing 35-34 to Charlotte Catholic in the N.C. 4A West football final last year, players and coaches immediately set their focus on making amends in 2015. Their pledge was simple: Take the next step.
“After the Catholic game, we were a little bit hurt,” linebacker Darien Reynolds said. “Our offseason has been pretty good and we don’t want that feeling any more. We’re trying to go further than last year.”
Said coach Aaron Brand: “They don’t want that same feeling they had last year after the Catholic game. The last game we played we lost, so the feeling of bitterness, the feeling of the food doesn’t taste as good, things haven’t been as lovely as they should’ve been in the offseason as far as our taste buds.”
Vance, No. 4 in the Sweet 16, has the ingredients to improve on last year’s 11-4 mark. Among the returning players are receiver/safety Myles Dorn and Reynolds, the Cougars’ top defender. At least eight Cougars are Division I recruits, including Western Carolina recruit Donnavan Spencer, who set a Mecklenburg County record last year with 430 yards rushing on 30 carries against Kannapolis Brown. There’s a new quarterback in Kingsley Ifedi, a 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior who is moving up from junior varsity and is attracting college offers.
“I’ve had some good quarterbacks play in this system and he’s next in line,” said Brand, whose team returns 13 starters. “What he brings is the academics and the size and people on the next level already know him. He’s going to be ready to play and be a tremendous asset to their program. He’s got what you can’t teach.”
Ifedi’s brother Jonathan, who has committed to play for Georgia State is part of a deep receiver corps that includes tight end Jeremiah Hall and Dorn, whom Brand contends is the state’s finest two-way player.
“We’re already into what’s expected of us,” said Dorn, who scored 19 touchdowns and had 77 tackles as a junior. “We know what we need to do. Inside the program, we want to win the state championship. Outside, I don’t know what’s expected of us, but we expect to win the state championship.”
Defensively, Reynolds leads a unit that gelled late in the season but is looking to atone for a second-half collapse in a loss to arch-rival Mallard Creek for the MECKA 4A championship. The Cougars are more experienced than last year’s group, which Reynolds said will make them more competitive.
“We’ll be better than last year,” he said. “A better team, better personnel. Better everything.”
The Cougars also are acclimated with Brand, who led Vance to the finest season in his first year as coach. His upbeat approach proved contagious and the players responded.
“He’s been great,” Dorn said. “We’ll be better just being in his system for a year.”
Last year’s long gone, but it remains a rallying point for the Cougars, whose three regular-season losses were to playoff teams – Richmond Senior, Hough and Mallard Creek. They haven’t forgotten the Catholic game, either.
“It’s fuel to the fire, so we’re working hard so we don’t feel like that ever again,” Dorn said.