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There was no official attendance figure given by the North Carolina High School Athletic Association for its 3-A football championship game Saturday at North Carolina State University’s Carter-Finley Stadium, but the population for southern Nash County might be a good starting point.
High school football games played in large college football stadiums often fail to match the luster of Friday night lights. Even a crowd of a couple thousand fans on one side looks puny in a 60,000-seat venue. But Saturday, the visitors side of Carter-Finley was mostly full in the lower deck (the upper deck was closed for the game), with what appeared to be twice — or maybe three or four times — as many Southern Nash fans as Charlotte Catholic supporters on the other side.
“I just want to thank our fans and our community,” Firebirds head coach Brian Foster said in his opening statement in the postgame press conference. “That was awesome to see when we came out. That was really, really special.”
Those fans didn’t get the reward they hoped for as Charlotte Catholic scored 20 points in the fourth quarter to hand the Firebirds a 23-7 loss, the first in 16 games in the greatest season in Southern Nash football history. But their presence spoke volumes about the program.
The Firebirds fans weren’t done yet though. A large contingent awaited the team buses upon their return to campus with the school band playing the fight song. One can only imagine what the reception would have been like had the Firebirds won.
But as Foster has said repeatedly throughout his 30-year career at Southern Nash, it’s not just about winning and losing.
“If people could see what some of these kids have done in their lives and what kind of kids they are and how far they’ve come along,” he said. “You hear that all the time, but you saw it in the crowd today. Our community, our makeup, our coaches — it’s the real deal. There ain’t nothing fake about it.”
The first game I covered at Southern Nash was in 2004 and the Firebirds, mired in a long string of losing seasons, were about as far away from a state championship game as they could be. The school opened its doors in 1968 and went 0-10 that first season under head coach Bill Price, first of seven head coaches in Southern Nash’s first 14 seasons, only six of which had winning records. Based on information from Chris Hughes’ CarolinaPreps.com website, there were some successful campaigns. Jerry Ball, 1-9 in his first season in 1970, directed the Firebirds to a 10-1 mark in his last one as head coach in 1972.
His successor, Gary Whitman, went 7-3 and 5-5 in his two seasons in 1973 and ’74. Wilson fans may remember Whitman as an assistant coach on two of Fike High’s state 4-A title teams in the late 1960s and the man who had the unenviable job of following Henry Trevathan as Fike head coach in 1970. Whitman would win state 2-A titles at Lexington in 1985 and 1986 and at High Point Central in 1999.
Ron Pinner took over in Stanhope in 1977 and promptly went 0-10. However, Pinner’s teams were 24-6 over the next three seasons.
Lawrence Edwards, who led Rock Ridge to the state 1-A runner-up finish in 1977 and guided Hunt to a 10-1 record in its first season in 1978, was head coach in 1981 for one season. He was followed by Pat Smith and Algie Faircloth, neither of whom won more than seven games in a season.
Faircloth, who took Marshville Forest Hills to the 2-A crown in 1984, unexpectedly passed away just before the 1990 season and Ray Davis took over. His first two seasons rank among the best in school history. The Firebirds made it to the NCHSAA 3-A East final both years, going 24-4. But like most of his predecessors, Davis had trouble maintaining that level of success as Southern Nash won just 24 games over his last six seasons. Even with arguably the greatest player the state of North Carolina has even produced in Julius Peppers, Southern Nash had just one winning season — 7-5 in Pepper’s junior season in 1996.
Foster, who had been a quarterback at Lenoir-Rhyne University, joined Faircloth's staff in 1990. Foster got the head job when Davis stepped aside after the 1997-98 school year to focus on his athletic director duties and to coach softball. It took Foster seven years to have a winning season, but his 2006 team came a win from claiming the 3-A NEW 6 Conference title. Three years later, Southern Nash, as the No. 11 seed, made it all the way to the 3-AA East final, losing by one point in three overtimes at No. 1 South Johnston.
The Firebirds have been winning ever since, sometimes making it look a lot easier than it has been. The crowds are much bigger now and Foster has college coaches contacting him about his players, most of whom have above-average grades. It’s a long way from the days when he would load his players in his car and drive them around the state on Saturdays for college visits, just hoping to get a program to make an offer.
On Saturday, Dec. 21, senior Quinton Cooley — his sore ankle permitting — will be the ninth Firebird, all coached by Foster, to play in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas . Scores of Southern Nash players have gone on to play college football, including 2018 senior Zonovan Knight, who led N.C. State in rushing as a freshman this year.
But for all the football success, Foster and his staff of former players (only defensive coordinator Robbie Kennedy is not a Southern Nash graduate) are focused on the bigger picture. As much as Foster wanted to win Saturday’s game — which possibly could have been his final one — the outcome will not define his career.
But winning a state championship wouldn’t have defined his career either. It’s like he has always said: It’s not just about football.
“I think we have a unique situation. We don’t just talk about building men — we do — and hopefully that’s going to continue,” he said. “It’s crazy how well they got along and how much they liked each other. It made for a real fun and interesting season. The main thing is that we’re going to have a lot of good men coming out of this group.”