The Transylvania Times -

The Long And Winding Road: How 14 Seniors Went From Winless Freshmen To State Semifinalists - Brevard NC

 

December 6, 2018

When the Class of 2019 stepped onto the campus of Brevard High School as freshmen, "Go, Big Blue!" wasn't something you heard very much on Friday nights.

Because not so long ago Brevard football – the once-distinguished program that has the words "Winning Is A Tradition," written in big, blue letters on the side of its field house – was at its lowest point in history.

Brevard had gone from one the power programs in mountain football to toiling in obscurity.

The Blue Devils endured their first 0-11 season in 2011 and suffered their second winless campaign in 2013. For the first time ever, they lost to the cross-county rival Rosman Tigers, eventually losing three straight games to their nemesis.

Brevard wasn't just bad. They were the doormat of the conference and quickly becoming irrelevant.

Fast-forward four years, and over the past three weeks, the Blue Devils have put together the kind of once-in-a-lifetime ride you have to be a part of to understand.

But for a group of 14 seniors, it hasn't always been this way. In fact, it's never been this way.

Not just for the Blue Devil program, but for them, personally.

Because while Brevard's varsity team struggled to a 2-9 record in 2015 during head coach Craig Pritchett's first season at the helm, the freshmen class went through a year of misery under the Thursday night lights.

The jayvee team of 2015 went 0-9. And it wasn't pretty.

Among the results were a 53-20 loss to Tuscola, a 41-12 defeat against Pisgah and a 48-0 drubbing against Franklin.

It was a humbling introduction to the world of high school football.

And it was a tough year for Pritchett, who also coaches Brevard's jayvee team, as his first year of a complete rebuilding project resulted in a combined 2-18 record.

"It was tough," said Pritchett, offering up the kind of chuckle you only hear when the current situation allows for such levity. "You come in trying to change a culture and asking the kids to do more in the weight room and in practice and then you don't have any wins to show that it's working. It's tough to get 14-year-old kids to stay and want to be a part of something greater when there's not much to show for it in the beginning."

But they did stay. And slowly, but surely, things began to change.

That change, however, didn't happen overnight.

Nor did it happen without commitment and a good-faith effort on behalf of the players based on the unproven belief that things would get better one day.

That is perhaps the most remarkable part of this year's run to the 2A state semifinals.

If not for the Class of 2019, the same group that endured a freshmen season of winless Thursday nights, it's hard to imagine where Brevard football would be.

They hit rock bottom only to serve as the foundation of greater things to come.

And now, looking back over the past four years, from where they started to where they are now, there might not be a class of players that has done more for the Blue Devil program.

Part I: The Growing Pains

"Bad." "Awful." "Terrible." "Frustrating." Even, "unrequited."

These are just a few of the quotes from Brevard's seniors when asked what one word they would use to sum up their freshmen jayvee season.

Going an entire year without a victory is demoralizing to any team.

But it wasn't just losing; it was losing after coming in with such high expectations.

While the varsity team was in the early stages of rebuilding, the Class of 2019 came in as freshmen ready to win football games.

They were talented and they were confident.

But neither translated into victories.

"We were a lot better than our record," said offensive lineman Chase Bishop. "This has always been a special group. We won a youth championship as Termites and it felt bad to not see the return on the field."

Bishop isn't alone in his assessment of 2015's jayvee season. The common thread among the seniors was the frustration borne out of the inability to convert talent into wins.

It was also a punch in the mouth to a group of wide-eyed freshmen who came into the program with a clean slate and never expected to struggle so much out of the gate.

Quarterback Mitchell Johnson recalled Pritchett speaking to him and his classmates when they were still in middle school, urging them to work hard over the summer and get ready for high school football.

Johnson and his teammates held up their end of the deal, putting in all the work that coaches asked of them, but got nothing in return.

"We worked hard over the summer. So, it was really tough to end up losing every Thursday night," Johnson said.

Aiden Green, Brevard's punter and receiver, echoed those sentiments, saying, "We all thought we might be pretty good and then we didn't win a game."

The team was in a similar position to 2015's varsity squad – desperate to find ways to win, having some opportunities to do so, but seeming to always come up short.

"We just couldn't come through on anything," said linebacker Nick Bumgarner. "But everybody kept working and getting better. It really was a learning experience and helped us get here."

For some players, the mounting losses left them with a bitter taste over the sport they loved.

"It got to the point that I forgot what it felt like to win," said running back Anthony Fields.

Fields said some of the growing pains were due to the players and the new coaching staff getting used to each other and figuring out the right personnel on the field.

While the winless season of 2015 is something that bands this group together, it's not something every senior experienced.

Offensive lineman Josh Birkle and wide receiver Luke Ellenberger were called up to the varsity team their freshmen year.

Ellenberger said he saw lots of similarities between the jayvee and varsity team that year, namely the flashes of potential that teased the players and fans by coming out of nowhere only to disappear just as quickly.

"It was really frustrating to watch," he said. "I knew their potential and I knew how good they could be. They just couldn't find a way to put it together, which was the same thing that was going on with the varsity team."

For Birkle, being thrust into the trenches with players that were older, bigger and stronger was an eye-opening experience.

He missed his classmates and found it hard to watch them suffer loss after loss.

"It was a little lonely being on that team without my friends," Birkle said. "I knew those guys were out there and I couldn't help them."

Off the field, one of the biggest transformations in the program took place in the weight room.

Pritchett emphasized strength training as a building block to success and quite quickly, scrawny freshmen developed into stout underclassmen.

"When you get kids in the weight room and they start finding that confidence and strength, it's a big thing," Pritchett said.

For Pritchett, the weight room wasn't just a place for his players to develop; it became his home away from home. Literally.

Upon taking the job at Brevard, during the transition of moving his family from Ridgeland, Ga., Pritchett became a bit of a nomad.

He stayed in hotels. He stayed in an apartment offered up by relatives of assistant coach Mark Ellenberger.

And on more than a few occasions, he slept in the field house, feet away from the weight room.

"I stayed at the Hampton Inn for about a week and when I started looking at the price of that, I figured I'd just take an air mattress to the field house," Pritchett said. "The funny thing is, when coach (Kyle) Dickey got hired on, he had an air mattress and slept in the training room a few nights. But you had to do what you had to do."

For the players, the weight room was far from a place to take a nap.

One of the trademarks of this Brevard team is their hard-hitting approach on both sides of the ball.

That kind of hard-nosed football wouldn't be possible if not for all the hard work the team put in as underclassmen.

"Everybody has been getting a lot stronger and faster over these past four years," Green said.

Given the tribulations of 2015, and given what, at the time, seemed like a bleak outlook for Blue Devil football moving forward, the decision of whether to come back and play as a sophomore wasn't an easy one to make.

"I told myself I would give it one more year," said offensive lineman Matthew Ridenour. "And now, looking back on everything, I wouldn't trade anything for it."

Linebacker Keenen Hawkins said going winless in the first season of high school football was unlike anything he experienced in his football career to that point.

"After that season, we were shocked," he said. "We've all grown up together, and maybe not had the best season every year, but definitely nothing like 0-9. It was hard to trust that a comeback was possible and that things could change, but we really believed in the coaches."

For linebacker/halfback Avery McCall, despite how bad things were, the possibility of getting better was what kept him motivated.

"I thought about quitting after freshman year, but I thought about how much fun it would be to actually win a game with my friends, so I just kept going," he said.

Some players even questioned their sanity for giving things another go.

"It kind of made you second guess yourself, but I'm glad I stuck with it," said Bumgarner.

But not everybody came back.

Wide receiver Breylan Owens didn't play his sophomore year.

Meanwhile, 2016 was a bounceback year that came out of nowhere for the Blue Devils.

The varsity team went from 2-9 to 9-2, winning a piece of the WNC Athletic Conference title with their first win over Pisgah in five years.

They advanced to the second round of the playoffs, where they fell to North Rowan, 27-21.

Owens said part of his decision to return to the gridiron was seeing the program transform.

"I saw Tanner Ellenberger and that group in 2016 elevate the program and I wanted to be a part of it," Owens said. "I recognized what I could do with my athleticism, and knew that I had the coaches that could help me to help the team."

While Owens is now one of Brevard's go-to playmakers, he holds some regret about not sticking it out for all four years.

"It tears at me a bit that I didn't play my sophomore year," he said.

Part II: The Taste Of Success

After the massive success of 2016, the sense around the community was, "Brevard is back."

As the Class of 2019 took over the reins of the varsity, everything seemed to be going as planned.

After an opening loss to Mountain Heritage, Brevard rattled off six straight wins and looked primed to make another run at a 10-win season.

But just when confidence was riding high, it all came crashing down. The Blue Devils lost their final five games of the season in 2017, including a pair of losses to Hendersonville by a combined score of 92-0.

It was another torturous period for a team that appeared to have all the ingredients for success.

This season took nearly the same course. A road loss to the Cougars in the season opener, followed by seven straight victories capped off by a 55-7 drubbing of Franklin that reverberated throughout WNC.

However, the following week Brevard lost on the road to Smoky Mountain in a game where they lost Johnson to a shoulder injury.

They bounced back to beat Hendersonville the following week, but ended the season with a home loss to Pisgah.

It looked like another solid start would end in bitterness, as Brevard received a No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Instead, the Blue Devils have captured lightning in a bottle.

They are peaking at the right time and playing like a team that is bound for glory.

"The commitment and the brotherhood that we have are special," said Ellenberger. "When we're out on the field, we're playing for each other. Everybody is all in on this team."

Hawkins said it's unbelievable to look back on that 0-9 season and realize that same group is now two wins away from a state title.

"I'm blessed to a part of this team. We showed people what we had during the regular season and when we got an eight seed, we weren't expected to make a deep run. But we stayed together, we believed in ourselves and that's all that mattered," Hawkins said.

It's been a special journey for Pritchett, as well.

"You really can't explain what it's like to watch guys go through your program for four years and watch them sell out, work and find the success they're having," he said. "To watch them overcome like they have, hopefully it will stick with them later in life when they have tough situations, they can look back and realize what they came through and where they brought this program."

Johnson credited Pritchett with sticking to his message, motivating the players when the wins weren't there and getting the team to believe that this ride was possible.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Johnson said. "Not everybody gets to experience something like this. It's great."

That sentiment isn't lost on any of the players in Brevard's locker room, especially the seniors.

That sense that everybody is in this together has propelled the team to play perhaps even greater than their collective ability.

"The one thing I'll always remember is the brotherhood we have," Birkle said. "We believe in each other. That's the biggest thing."

Pritchett agreed, saying, "With this group of seniors, they've been willing to stay together and work hard. They've taken on the challenges together. This is one of the closest groups we've had since I've been here and maybe one of the closest I've been around as a coach."

Part III: The Legacy

For a program that many had left for dead four years ago to earn a trip to its first semifinal in 13 years is the kind of stuff Hollywood scripts are made of.

But whether Brevard hoists a championship trophy or not, the fact remains that the sun is setting on this fabled journey, and soon, this senior class will walk off the field together for one last time.

The Class of 2019 knows how close they are to pulling off something that will forever etch their place in Brevard football history.

And the thought of what winning a title would mean is made all the sweeter by recalling just how far they have come.

"Winning a championship would mean the world to me," said Ellenberger. "Just because as little kids it's something you always talk about with your friends and it's something you always think about."

Winning a championship is undoubtedly the goal of every athlete at every level, but that idea of accomplishing the goal together is unique to this senior class.

"This run has meant everything, especially doing it with my closest friends," Owens said.

Linebacker Lucas Brooks couldn't say what a championship would mean to him. Rather, he let his face do it for him.

"If we finish this off, I'll be walking around with this smile on my face all year," he said.

This rags to riches story has captured the hearts of the Brevard community, and for good reason.

Blue Devil fans long yearned for the glory days of Cliff Brookshire, Frank Robinson and Dan Essenberg.

Brevard's team captains, pictured from left to right, include Luke Ellenberger, Nick Bumgarner, Kane Deshauteurs and Chase Bishop. Together, they've helped return Blue Devil football to the glory days of yesteryear and have Brevard playing in the state semifinals for the first time in 13 years. (Times photos by Kevin Fuller)

When Pritchett took over at Brevard, he didn't shy away from the lofty expectations that come with Blue Devil football.

Not only did he deliver on those expectations, he has far surpassed what anybody thought was possible in only four years.

But the work isn't done.

Not for this team and not for this program.

However, for the first time in a long time the future of Blue Devil football is as bright as the "B" that rests at midfield of Brevard Memorial Stadium.

And that is thanks to a great coach and a special group of 14 young men.

"We've really set a new standard, or really gotten the standard back to where it was during Brevard's heyday. We're back to where winning is expected and putting in the work that it takes in order to win is expected," Pritchett said.

 
 

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