Kevin Burchett began calling Mooresville High football games on the radio 26 years ago when he was still a student.
Back then, the Blue Devils, who had once been state champions, were in a lull, with just three winning seasons in 15 years.
But Burchett was amazed at the passion that he and his schoolmates – and the whole town, really – still had for Mooresville football. From behind the microphone, Burchett has seen the program rise and fall.
This season Mooresville is back on top, led by an enigmatic coach who once drew national headlines and criticism for performing baptisms and leading his players in prayer, and a running back whose classmates once teased that he was too small to play as a 145-pound ninth grader.
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Mooresville (4-0) is No. 7 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll and will play Iredell County rival Statesville at home Friday in a game that will likely sell out early, as most of them do.
“I grew up here,” Burchett said. “And football is such a community-based event for us. Everybody gets behind it. Mooresville is its own school system, so there’s a lot of loyalty there. Original Mooresville people – even though now there are more transplants – they stay behind it.”
Coach Hal Capps, who won his 200th game Sept. 12, has led three of his first four teams at Mooresville to winning records and playoffs berths. In 2011, two years after going 0-11, Mooresville qualified for the N.C. 4A Western regional championship game.
This season the Blue Devils are aiming higher, led by a kid Burchett considers among the best players in school history: senior Akease Rankin. Rankin, a 5-foot-10, 205-pound running back, has rushed for 703 yards and 11 touchdowns this season.
Here is the story of a football-crazed town, and the 2014 team at the center of it.
Mooresville High, located about 30 miles north of Charlotte in southern Iredell County, opened in the 1930s.
Today the school has 1,600 students and each is issued a MacBook computer. Average daily attendance is 95 percent and the four-year graduation rate is above 90 percent, among the highest in the state. President Obama visited in June 2013 to laud the school’s academic achievement.
Mooresville won the 1961 Western N.C. High School Activities Association state football championship. The Blue Devils were state runners-up in 1972, but then cooled off until 1989, one year after Burchett started broadcasting games.
Since then, the Blue Devils have made the state playoffs 21 times and have had 11 seasons with 10 or more wins. That run includes three appearances in the state semifinals.
Burchett credits coach Mike Carter for bringing back winning football. Carter was hired in 1989 after Mooresville suffered through seven seasons with just one winning record.
“When (Carter) started it was (the) rekindling of the program,” Burchett said. “He believed in a ... two-platoon system and working with the community through the Pop Warner and middle-school programs. That really energized the community.”
Carter, an Appalachian State graduate, coached from 1989-2002. He never had a losing season. Assistant Barclay Marsh took over in 2003. He coached six years and produced three winning seasons.
When Marsh left in 2008, the school reached out to Capps, who won a 2007 state title at Western Alamance. But Capps’ daughter was a junior in high school, and he chose to stay put.
Mooresville hired Steve McCurry before the 2009 season, and the Blue Devils didn’t win a game. Officials called Capps again.
This time, they got their man.
Capps says he is deeply religious. When he got the second call from Mooresville, he felt it was a sign.
“I came here because God wanted me to,” he said. “The second time they called, my daughter had graduated and God opened the door and said, ‘Look, how many times am I going to open it?’ ”
Mooresville went 8-4 in 2010, Capps’ first season. The next season the Blue Devils were 12-3 and made the regional final. The team dipped to 4-7 in 2012, but came back strong in 2013 at 11-2.
The Blue Devils returned 13 starters and 52 lettermen this season. In January, however, Capps came under fire after the Freedom from Religion Foundation wrote to the school districtto ask him to stop baptizing players and leading them in prayer.
The same group said recently that Clemson coach Dabo Swinney intertwines his Christian religion with his football program.
Superintendent Mark Edwards met with Capps and ordered him not to lead students in prayers and baptisms. Capps said he understood and wrote his players and their families telling them he intended to stop.
On the field, Capps has won 39 games at Mooresville, making him the school’s third-winningest coach. The Blue Devils are averaging 40.25 points and allowing just 11 this season.
“Coach Capps has really energized the program,” Burchett said. “He’s gotten it to how it was 20 years ago. It’s been amazing.”
The best player on one of Mooresville’s best teams is Rankin, who is thickly muscled and looks like a college upperclassman. It’s hard to believe he’s that same scrawny ninth-grader.
“Some of the older kids told me I wasn’t good,” said Rankin, who’s gained 60 pounds since his freshman year. “A lot of people told me I wasn’t the most athletic person and I was getting a lot of hate. I started trying to get better to prove to them that I could do this, I could be something more.”
It started with 300 pushups and 300 sit-ups every night. Then it was running hills until his chest felt like it was about to explode. Then it was lifting weights every day for hours. Capps said Rankin is the hardest-working player he’s coached in 30 years. He remembers how Rankin took a barbell with 185 pounds of additional weight from the floor to chest level, a power clean, 200 times.
“He wasn’t going to stop,” Capps said. “He doesn’t have God’s greatest gifts. He’s not the fastest. He’s not the biggest, but he will outwork you.”
Rankin, 17, also is also motivated by his opponents. Last year, for instance, he was hit so hard against West Rowan that his helmet flew off and both his contact lenses popped out. He spent the offseason working harder to assure that doesn’t happen again.
“I was determined to not be the receiver of that hit,” he said. “I wanted to give it.”
Sure enough, Rankin ran for three touchdowns in the second quarter of a 49-21 win against West Rowan in the season opener. Rankin rushed for 2,136 yards and 21 touchdowns as a junior. He’s on pace to top that this season.
“I think he’s one of those special players,” said West Rowan coach Scott Young, whose team hasn’t lost since. “He’s big and physical and he makes good reads. We knew he was good.”
Sitting in his radio booth each Friday, Burchett knows this is another golden era for Mooresville, like the one Mike Carter spearheaded in 1989. This year’s team is deep, experienced and talented. The school’s rabid fan base has never been more vocal
Burchett regularly sees Capps and his staff at area youth games, which reminds him of Carter’s years at the school. He sees former players bringing their kids to the Pee Wee games. He talks about 100 kids trying out for the team. Burchett sees the sons of former assistants on the sidelines.
Burchett said he looks around and sees the type of program most schools can only dream about.
“Coach Capps is a motivator,” Burchett said. “He’s absolutely the type of person that ever company wants as an employee. A guy who gives you everything he’s got and one that will pick up somebody when they’re down.
“I think players, fans, parents, everybody embraces that. He’s the right fit for Mooresville. I hope Mooresville is the right fit for him. He’s brought us a good team, and when you’ve got a good team people enjoy it. They like a good product and pack the house.
“I made the comment on the radio that I’ll challenge any school to any location and we’ll put more people in the seats than they will. It doesn’t matter if we have to drive two hours to do it. Our moms and dads and fans, they travel and they support. And that’s what makes Mooresville football special.”