It’s been an up-and-down ride for Vance High football teammates Jeremiah Hall and Kingsley Ifedi the past two seasons.
Both senior leaders, headed for Division I college programs next year, want to go out this time with their team on the upswing.
Last year was a 6-6 disappointment after Vance had finished 11-4 and reached the 4A West Regional championship game in 2014. The 2015 Cougars faded after a 5-2 start, losing four of their last five - all by a touchdown or less and two of those in overtime.
“We had a lot of games within our reach, but we just couldn’t finish,” said Ifedi, who will start for the second straight year at quarterback after passing for 3,213 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. He’s the youngest of four brothers who have played Charlotte-area high school football.
“This year we want to leave our mark on this school and contend for a state championship.”
That’s a tall order considering the competition just in the MECKA 4A conference, but third-year coach Aaron Brand says he’s looking forward to the challenge.
“We like being the underdog, but we’re an underdog with confidence,” says Brand, who came to Vance after four years as an assistant coach at rival Mallard Creek. “Last year we never could quite click and we were always fighting and scratching to put something together. I don’t think we have as much talent this year, but we’ve got leadership.”
Much of that falls on players like Ifedi, who has committed to play at East Carolina, and Hall, a 6-foot-3, 230-pound “H-back” (a tight end who lines up in the backfield). He committed to Oklahoma.
“We just try to stay positive,” said Hall, who last season caught 55 passes for 705 yards, rushed for 500 and scored 12 touchdowns. “The losses we had were hard last year, but the guys coming back want to be leaders and we want to have a better season.”
The Cougars have a core of veteran players returning on offense in addition to Ifedi and Hall. They include senior tight end Nate Jones, who has committed to the U.S. Military Academy; 6-4, 210-pound wide receiver Michael Roberts, a senior transfer from Berry Academy; seniors Jayson Gaston, a 6-3, 240-pound guard, and Davae Anthony anchor the offensive line.
Brand calls his defensive unit “as good as I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
The Cougars have a pair of senior standouts at linebacker in senior Darien Reynolds, a three-year starter, and junior Gerald Nathan. Damir Faison, a 6-3, 249-pound junior, will be counted on at defensive end. Junior cornerback/safety Exavier Williams is the top returning player in the defensive backfield.
They’ll try to get the Cougars through a conference Brand says is “one of the few in the state that doesn’t have a cakewalk in the schedule.” Three-time reigning state 4AA champion Mallard Creek didn’t even win the MECKA last season, with the league title going to Hough.
Many of the conference schools are within a few miles of one another and that makes the rivalries more intense, Hall said.
“We have personal relationships with players from almost all the other teams, so there’s bragging rights almost every week,” he said.
Ifedi says the Cougars are ready to take their place among the contenders for the conference championship and beyond.
“All we need is a chance,” he said.
The Cougars open the season Friday at West Mecklenburg.
Observer Sweet 16: Vance Cougars
The Observer continues with previews of teams in its annual preseason Sweet 16 high school football poll. The teams will be revealed in alphabetical order. The poll, with numerical order, will be released after the previews.
Head coach: Aaron Brand (Third season as Vance coach)
2015 record: 6-6 (2-4 in the MECKA 4A)
Key returning starters: Kingsley Ifedi, Sr., QB (6-4, 215); Jeremiah Hall, Sr., HB/RB (6-3, 225); Darien Reynolds, Sr., LB/S (6-0, 205); Nate Jones, Sr., TE/DE (6-4, 215); Damir Faison, Jr., DE (6-2, 215); Xavier Williams, Jr., DB (5-10, 175).
Key newcomers: Michael Roberts, Sr., WR (6-4, 205).
Returning starters: 6
Returning lettermen: 30
Outlook: The Cougars were within one score of beating both Mallard Creek (4AA state champion/lost 22-21) and Charlotte Catholic (4A state champion/lost in double overtime in playoffs) and dramatically changing their season. This year, Vance must replace 16 starters, but the Cougars have big-time players in a pair of seniors - quarterback Kingsley Ifedi, who has committed to East Carolina, and running back Jeremiah Hall, who committed to Oklahoma.