When Mike Newsome left a national powerhouse at Butler High in Matthews to become coach at Kannapolis’ A.L. Brown in 2011, he considered his new destination one of the Carolinas’ holy grails of high school football.
A.L. Brown had won 17 conference championships in 21 seasons against 3A competition before Newsome arrived in this mill town of 42,000, about 30 miles north of Charlotte.
Newsome, 43, said he figured he would coach 11 or 12 years before retiring and help continue a wave of success that has spawned one of the most rabid fanbases in N.C. history.
“I looked at this job and the tradition they had here and the level of winning they had here and the teams they play and the conference they competed in,” Newsome said. “I knew, in that league (the South Piedmont 3A), A.L. Brown has typically 10 to 12 wins per year.”
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But after Newsome’s first two teams in 2011 and 2012 went 22-6 and won another league title, A.L. Brown was moved into a 4A conference with larger Charlotte schools, including state and national power Mallard Creek, which has won the past two 4AA state championships.
In 2013, A.L. Brown was 7-5. In 2014, Brown was 6-6. It was Brown’s worst season in 17 years. And in conference play, the Wonders’ back-to-back 4-3 seasons represented the school’s worst performances since 1977.
“At Butler, I never thought about enrollment,” Newsome said of his former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school, which had about 2,100 students compared to 1,400 at A.L. Brown. “We had numbers. Now, being one of the smallest 4A schools in the state of North Carolina, and playing schools with double your enrollment, well, it’s a sheer numbers thing.
“They’re going to have better players typically than what you’ve got if you just look at the numbers.”
But this season, Newsome has a senior class that has been with him for four years. He also made a key change after last season and is playing more players on both offense and defense. Newsome said long-time Brown fans tell him senior Jalyn Cagle, a starter at defensive back and running back, is the first Wonder to play offense and defense full time since the 1980s.
So far, the changes have worked. Brown is 5-0 for the first time since 2006 and is ranked No. 7 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll. Friday night, Brown plays at No. 6 Vance.
“I had a revelation in our playoff game last year (a 50-42 loss to Pfafftown Reagan in the first round),” Newsome said. “I’m sitting there thinking if we can get them stopped, we score and win. We couldn’t get them stopped. I sat there and said our starting running back is standing behind me and our starting slot back, the best athlete on our team, is sitting behind me.
“I’ve got all these great players sitting behind me and we can’t get them stopped. Most high school teams have 10 to 12 good athletes. A team like Mallard Creek or Vance will have 20 to 25. But we’ve got to get our 10 or 12 on the field.”
So Cagle, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound senior, is on the field much of the game. Running back Sandon McCoy is playing defensive end in key situations. Tight end Alex Hubbell, when necessary, will also play defensive end, and offensive lineman Juan Morgan will play on the defensive line when the situation warrants.
“Now,” Newsome said, “we’re putting our best players on the field. We have to do it because we’re so thin. We have 41 players on varsity.”
Newsome and Brown ended a three-year losing streak to arch-rival Concord to start the season and have blitzed their last four opponents by a combined score of 188-36. Long-time Wonders fans are feeling like the good ol’ days are here again.
“It’s beginning to build some excitement,” said Mayor Darrell Hinnant, who has lived in Kannapolis since 1975. “We play some good teams and show we’re competitive and there’s real enthusiasm in the community, and people are feeling the Wonders are back. Everybody I talk to is really excited about it and can’t wait until we play the next game.
“We’ve got Vance next and that’s a big test, but folks are really excited because they think we have a chance. When A.L. Brown moved into that conference with the really big schools, there was some concern about if we could be competitive, but now they think we can.”
Newsome feels that excitement, too. He’s happy that his 17 seniors are enjoying this run. He notes that 14 of them have better than 3.0 grade-point averages and eight are above a 4.0. He calls them “good kids.”
“We understand what we’re fighting against (facing the Charlotte schools),” he said. “If we stay healthy, I like the way we’re playing. The 11 people we put out versus the 11 we face is comparable, but if we lose a player, we’re not because we don’t have the back-up players. It’s all up in the air.
“I told the kids (Monday), ‘5-0 is great, but with the teams we play, all the teams are capable of beating you, so 5-0 can be 5-6 real quick if we don’t keep working hard.’ ”
Wertz: 704-358-5133; Twitter: @langstonwertzjr