From 2000 through 2008, Independence High was, without question, the No. 1 football program in North Carolina. The Patriots won with a mesmerizing offense that put up record-setting numbers and sent dozens of players to college.
This season, the Patriots are back to No. 1 in the Observer’s Sweet 16 poll for the first time in nearly six years. Independence (8-0) is winning a little differently than it did during its heyday, when it won 109 straight games and seven straight state championships.
The 2014 Patriots average a healthy 40 points per game, but the team is led by a suffocating defense that has six shutouts and has allowed only 24 points.
No team in North Carolina that has played more than five games has given up fewer points, according to Carolina Preps, a website that tracks statewide stats and results. No team, beside the Patriots, has more than four shutouts.
“The guys are a little bit more seasoned and our schemes are the same, but the guys trust it more,” coach Joe Evans said. “And we’ve got good players.”
During the summer, Evans brought back seven of the Patriots’ former state champions and added them to his 12-person staff. The former players constantly tell the current players about the Patriots’ rich history.
In 2000-09, Independence was 132-7. In 2010, the Patriots were 3-8, their first losing season since 1994. The 2011 and 2012 teams finished 20-6, and Evans’ first team last season was 8-5, but at a school that defines itself by state championships, Independence hasn’t been past the second round of the playoffs in five years.
The old players told the current players that now is the time to change that.
“They bring this attitude back that nobody can play with us,” quarterback Kelvin Hopkins said. “They were telling us stories about how other teams’ fans would come over there to watch Independence play. It’s a mindset they put into us.”
It has been defense – led by a strong front four – that has begun to help put Independence football back on top.
Christian Colon (6-foot-3, 320 pounds), Jamal Kearney (6-3, 275), Caleb Walker (6-0, 210) and Kima Bell (6-4, 215) anchor a front that demands constant double teams and gives opposing rushers trouble. Led by that front, Independence shut out its first four opponents before Hough scored on Sept. 19 – nearly a month into the season.
“Honestly,” said Colon, a junior who has scholarship offers from North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia and Wake Forest, “we feel like it should be eight shutouts. The way we look at it, people aren’t scoring on our starters. We’re putting in our backups. We’re putting in JV people to get them used to playing varsity.
“If our starters play the whole game, no one is scoring on us. That’s how we’re starting to feel. Think about it, Hough put up 30 on (Sweet 16 No. 2) Mallard Creek, and Hough put up 17 on our backups.”
Of Independence’s eight wins, only two have come against teams with winning records. Hough is 5-3 and South Mecklenburg is 6-2. The Patriots beat South Meck to start the season 49-0 and the Sabres ran off six straight wins after that, before losing a late lead at Sweet 16 No. 5 Charlotte Catholic on Friday.
Hough was up 30-0 on Mallard Creek before the Mavericks put on a monumental rally two weeks ago to win 37-30.
The Patriots know people question their schedule. The Patriots’ opponents are a combined 20-43.
“I believe this team is battle-tested,” said Hopkins, who will play at Army next season. “Last year, we had a tough (8-5) season and we got the bulk of those guys back. We definitely understand what it can be like, losing games by single-digit points. We’re not taking this undefeated season for granted.
“People can say we haven’t played anybody and we haven’t run into a tough game and been pushed into the fourth quarter yet, but we’ve been there before. We know how that feels. I feel like if that time comes, if it ever does, we can take it there and handle ourselves.”
Independence will host Myers Park this week and then face reigning Southwestern 4A champ Rocky River and state power Butler in back-to-back games to finish the regular season. Evans, who has added games with powers Mallard Creek and Vance to the 2015 schedule, said his team hasn’t come close to peaking yet, especially that defense.
“It’s a combination of all 11 of them,” he said. “We’ve got the four guys up front doing their job. That’s all they’re asked to do. You’ve got the linebackers behind them in turn doing theirs and if someone has to double-team Jamal or Christian, we’ve got a linebacker with a free lane. And then you can make plays.”
Hopkins played against the 2012 Butler team as a sophomore. The Bulldogs beat Independence twice, 33-14 and 55-26, en route to a state championship. That 2012 Butler team had five shutouts and allowed 8.5 points per game. Hopkins said he can favorably compare this year’s Patriots with those Bulldogs. He said he knows that is high praise.
“It’s definitely a challenge trying to get past those guys (on his team) in practice,” he said. “2012 Butler was a great defense. Our defense has six shutouts this year. We have a dominant D-line and the stats are there. They are dominating this year just like that (Butler) team was.”
Is that enough to get Independence back to the status it used to have, when many teams would fear the school known as The Big I?
“Hopefully we can start a new Big I,” Hopkins said. “We’re all trying to leave our mark and trying to do something that hasn’t been done since 2007 (the 2006-07 school-year when Independence won its last state title). I’m not going to make a prediction, but I know what my team is capable of. I’ll just leave it at that.”