When Marty Paxton left Mooresville High’s football program nearly a decade ago, it turned out that the departure wasn’t for good.
In fact, Paxton’s ultimate career goal was to return to the Blue Devils – as the head coach.
“That was my dream,” Paxton said Aug. 1, after Mooresville’s first summer practice for the 2016 high school football season.
As it turned out, dreams can come true – the Blue Devils head into the new season with Paxton heading up the program.
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Paxton was named Mooresville’s new head coach in March, following Hal Capps’ retirement from the North Carolina school system to take the head coaching job at Seneca (S.C.) High.
Paxton had spent four seasons (2003-2006) as an assistant football coach -– as well as head wrestling coach, assistant baseball coach and the school’s speed and strength coordinator – at Mooresville under then-head coach Barclay Marsh.
But when officials from Hickory Ridge High School, a new school opening in Harrisburg, came calling to hire Paxton to get its football program off the ground, he jumped at the opportunity.
However, the time with the Blue Devils – however brief it was – remained with Paxton.
“I just really liked the people,” Paxton said. “I really liked the atmosphere of football on Friday nights there. There’s certain places you know that when you’ve been there, when you leave they’re a place you might want to come back and be a head coach.”
The time at Mooresville also influenced Paxton in how he wanted to establish Hickory Ridge’s football program.
“A lot of the things I took with me, that we tried to do at Hickory Ridge, came from Mooresville football,” Paxton said. “The program atmosphere, trying to develop kids over a period of time and not just a team, also with the coaching staff and making it a family affair – always involving the coaches, their wives and their kids.
“When you’ve had a place as successful as Mooresville, why not try to kind of recreate that in another place, and see if you can do what they did,” Paxton said.
In many ways, Paxton believes he succeeded in that with Hickory Ridge.
In nine seasons as the Ragin’ Bulls’ head coach, he compiled a 56-53 overall record, with five winning seasons – 7-6 in 2009, 6-6 in 2011, a school-record 11-2 in 2012 (which included their first conference title), 10-3 in 2014, and a 7-5 mark last season.
“My time there and what I developed, along with the athletic director (Adam Despot) and the whole school, you can say was a success,” Paxton said.
“We talked before I got the job at Hickory Ridge about what he wanted in the future of the athletic program, and what I wanted. When I left, it was that way; it was supportive of the whole athletic program, and it involved the families, not just the coaches.”
However, when Capps announced in February that he was leaving Mooresville, Paxton jumped at the chance to return to the Blue Devils’ program.
“I actually made some phone calls before (Capps) was gone,” Paxton said. “When I heard he was looking, I made a few phone calls and let some people know that I was looking if that was the case. I would definitely be interested in the opportunity to get an interview.”
Paxton got more than an interview – he beat out more than 70 applicants for the position.
Now Paxton has the reins of Mooresville’s football program, which has undergone some changes since he last coached there.
For starters, the school’s bigger – from a 3A-level program with more than 1,500 students in 2006, to a 4A-level program now with a student body of nearly 1,900 students.
“It gives you a bigger pool of talent to pull from,” Paxton said. “But it also means that you play against a higher caliber of competition.”
Mooresville currently plays in the North Piedmont 3A/4A, a mixed-division conference with fellow 4A schools Lake Norman and Alexander Central, and 3A schools South Iredell, Statesville, North Iredell, North Lincoln and West Iredell.
That changes next year, however, with N.C. High School Athletic Association’s quad-annual conference realignment.
The Blue Devils (along with Lake Norman) return to what had been the MECKA 4A, a 4A-only conference that includes two-time NCHSAA state 4A champion Mallard Creek, Hough, Hopewell, North Mecklenburg, Vance and West Charlotte.
“Any given night in that conference, it’s going to be a battle,” Paxton said.
But Paxton isn’t worrying about that move just yet; he’s trying to get Mooresville ready for the coming season, which begins Aug. 19 against former conference rival West Rowan.
The Blue Devils return just eight starters from last year’s team, which finished 8-4 and shared the North Piedmont 3A/4A title with South Iredell.
But among the returnees are two college prospects – senior running back Donshel Jetton, who rushed for 1,878 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2015; and senior cornerback Chris Ingram, an N.C. State commit.
Most important, however, is that Mooresville’s players have apparently come to terms with the switch from Capps – who became a highly-popular coach during his six years with the Blue Devils – to Paxton taking over the reins.
“For the most part, the kids are sold on the (coaching) change,” Paxton said. “We’ve had great participation this summer. They’ve adjusted to the change, and I’ve adjusted. They’ve bought in. There’s a lot of excitement amongst the kids.”
Bill Kiser is a freelance writer: BKiserCLTObs@gmail.com.