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Southern Nash’s road to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A football championship game started more than a decade ago.
Many of the current Firebirds played for the Nash County Parks and Recreation Department youth football program team based at Southern Nash, where they first learned not only how to play the game but to put on a uniform and be part of a team. Since its inception in 2008, the youth football program that is in the Eastern North Carolina Football League has turned out dozens of future Firebirds, said Southern Nash head coach Brian Foster, who estimated that perhaps a little more than half the players he’s had started playing the game with the Firebirds youth program.
Foster, who started coaching at Southern Nash in 1990 and took over as head coach in 1998, pushed for a youth football program, if only to give kids a chance to play the sport before they got to middle or even high school.
“The fact that some of them already have knowledge of football is always going to be good — and not just football,” he said. “Putting on a uniform, putting on a helmet, stuff that we used to have to show them. We’d have kids who had never put on shoulder pads or put knee pads in pants.”
Not all of them ended up in a Southern Nash High uniform, Foster said, but the program met the larger goal of creating a support community.
“There’s been some good and some bad from it,” Foster said, noting that a significant number of kids who played with his older son, Zack, who was the Firebirds starting quarterback in 2014 and 2015, simply gave up the sport in high school.
“So I don’t know if it was just the kids getting burnt out or ... But the whole concept of the youth program was to get our communities together. We have so many smaller communities and I think from that standpoint, it’s helped.”
David Allen, who helped start the Southern Nash youth football program and was a coach for its first five seasons, said that the fan support for the high school program today began with the youth program.
“I’ll be honest with you, when they were 8, 9, 10 years old, the bleachers were the same way — it was packed,” said Allen, whose nephews Brian and Brett Allen played for the Firebirds in the 2000s. “For a youth football game, you couldn’t believe it would be that way.”
“We never heard complaints from the parents. The parents were at every practice. They didn’t just drop off the kids and come back later.”
And like the Southern Nash High program’s success, the junior Firebirds were also successful.
“The first year was ‘08,” Allen said, pointing out that first team was at the junior varsity level. “They’d never played football. Some of them didn’t even know how to put their uniform on and they went 5-4 and two games came down to the end.”
Allen and fellow coach James Watson led Southern Nash to North Carolina Recreation and Parks Association Statewide Athletic Committee (SWAC) championships in 2009 and 2010. Coincidentally, the team Southern Nash beat in both finals and then lost to in the 2011 championship was Mebane, which had many players to go on to Eastern Alamance High. The Firebirds defeated the Eagles in the NCHSAA 3-A East final Friday, a year after losing to Eastern Alamance in the second round. The high schools have also played two other times in the state playoffs since 2015.
Allen credited Brian Foster for helping develop the youth program. During the 2009 postseason, when the Firebirds were in the midst of their first run to the regional championship game under Foster, he took time during his team’s practice to work with youth football team that was also in the playoffs.
“He stopped his practice and put my running backs with his offense (future Firebirds Kelvin Whitaker, Grant Jones, Tahj Deans and Jaquay Mitchell) to let them see where the holes were supposed to be,” Allen said. “I thought that was unreal for him to stop a practice when they were in the state playoffs and show 12-year-olds what to do.”
Southern Nash assistant coaches, especially line coach Brian Batchelor, also worked with the youngsters, who were learning the Firebirds double-wing offense.
“They did a really tremendous job teaching these kids how to block,” Allen said, pointing out he tried to keep the double wing simple for the kids but made sure they spent at least 30 minutes every practice working on offensive plays.
Allen said he was surprised and impressed by how well the youngsters acclimated to what they were being taught, starting with the 2009 youth team that won a SWAC state championship game in the snow.
“They were buying what we were telling them and sticking to it,” he said. “It was a blessing. Those kids were talented, smart. They caught on well.”
Along with Watson, whose son Matthew played at Southern Nash, several other parents with kids who would go on to play at Southern Nash helped coach the youth teams, including John Drake, Kevin Watson, Sam Weeks and Joey Perry. And, of course, dozens of former and current Firebirds — including but not limited to Matt Foster, Brandon Strickland, Quinton Cooley, Luke Watson, Zollie Alford, Daylon Whitley, Chason Royal and Evan Barnes — got their start playing for the junior Firebirds.
DOING IT THE RIGHT WAY
The program has played a major role in Southern Nash’s success over the past 10 years, along with many other factors, culminating in the Firebirds’ first state championship appearance.
It was part of Brian Foster’s plan, including hiring many of his former players as assistant coaches. Currently, seven of his former players — Batchelor, Brian Rice, Kwamaine Battle, Sterling Leonard, Adam Monts de Oca, Jordan Bass and his son Zack — are Southern Nash assistant coaches.
“I knew that getting guys back coaching here,” Foster said. “I knew that we needed a youth program. I knew that the middle school needed to do the same thing (on offense as the high school teams did). I knew we had to improve our weight program and have a better summer program. You know, I think each of those things got us to where we are now.”
As with everything Foster does for his program, it’s not about just doing something but doing it the right way.
“We had to get the right guys back,” he said. “All the guys we have here are smart guys and good men. There’s nobody that’s going to be around my kids if they don’t care about kids, I can tell you that. I don’t care who you are. I think we’ve had the right group of people come back and it’s been a blessing.”