Ellis led Catawba to national stage
LEXINGTON —It was Saturday morning, Nov. 25, 2000, and Mitch Ellis, the quarterback, was with his Catawba teammates.
They’d come a long way together. Catawba finally had beaten Carson-Newman in a fierce matchup of top-five teams, and many believed coach David Bennett and his staff, guys like Jim Tomsula, Chip Hester and Curtis Walker, had built the best Division II football team in the country.
“I remember sitting there in the chapel at morning worship that day,” Ellis said. “It was raining so hard. It was like. ‘Lord, don’t you know that we’ve got a pretty big football game this afternoon?’”
Three weeks earlier at Mars Hill, Ellis had torn an ACL. Not many people knew that. Even most of his teammates were only aware he was dealing with “a leg injury.”
Ellis was limping, but he was a senior. This was it for him. He wasn’t going to stop playing.
At Lenoir-Rhyne, a week after Mars Hill, he’d hobbled off the bench in the fourth quarter and directed the two scoring drives that had rallied third-ranked Catawba to victory and a 10-0 regular season.
“They asked me if I could go in, and I said I could,” Ellis said. “We all wanted to go undefeated.”
But there were no miracles on Nov. 25, 2000. The relentless downpour never abated.
Shortly after the Indians began their second-round playoff game against Delta State, the field at Shuford Stadium was better suited for mud wrestling than football.
“Cold and wet, drainage wasn’t good and conditions became unbearable,” Ellis said. “We were a passing team, but all I could do was throw it up and hope Nick Means or Ryan Millwood could make a play. Delta State was built better than we were for those conditions. They were triple-option. They just kept running what they always did.”
The Delta State Statesmen beat Catawba 20-14 and would go on to win the national championship. Ellis was 4-for-13 passing for 47 yards. The last game of his career was statistically the worst game of his life.
“We didn’t lose very many,” Ellis said. “You’re never prepared for that last game to be a loss.”
It all started for Ellis at North Rowan. He was a combination quarterback/defensive end for the North Rowan jayvees in 1992, a year the Cavaliers were state runner-up in 3A. He came up to the varsity for the playoff run and was used on special teams.
“That offseason, coach (Roger) Secreast told me I was going to be his quarterback,” Ellis said. “He sent me to Gus Purcell’s quarterbacks camp at Wingate. That’s where it started for me.”
A grandson of Rowan County Hall of Famer Steve Gilmore, Ellis was phenomenal in his two seasons as North Rowan’s varsity QB. His 5,581 career passing yards broke the county record, although his yardage total has since been topped by North Rowan’s Mario Sturdivant and West Rowan’s B.J. Sherrill.
Ellis put up his numbers in just 25 games and averaged two TD passes per game for his career. His 1994 season (2,945 passing yards) remains the county single-season record. His 1993 season (2,636 passing yards) still ranks third on the all-time list.
Ellis quarterbacked North Rowan in two epic games in 1994.
That was the first year of the 11-game regular season — endowment games were being counted for the first time — and when the Cavaliers squared off against Albemarle for the YVC championship, it was the first time in state history that two 10-0 teams met in the regular season.
Ellis remembers that North Rowan speedster Ed Suber had a dislocated ankle and missed a battle that actually exceeded the pregame hype. Albemarle won 28-21 in overtime.
North Rowan’s other signature game that season was the 34-30 victory against rival West Rowan in the second round of the 2A playoffs.
“They had a guy drop a ball going down the sideline, so it could’ve just as easily have gone West’s way,” Ellis said. “It was a big win for us in front of a packed house.”
The 6-foot-2 Ellis was named All-State. His next stop was Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia. That was a tough year, getting up at 6 a.m, marching and drilling, but Ellis got through it.
“That year helped me work on my study habits and work on being away from home,” Ellis said. “I had a good year on the field. We were 8-1 and I threw 22 touchdown passes, but the level of recruiting interest after that was disappointing. I’d been recruited by Tennessee, Clemson and East Carolina in high school, but I didn’t get those big offers coming out of prep school.”
Ellis chose Delaware State. That didn’t work out. Bennett gave him a chance to come home to Catawba. That worked out for all parties.
“I’ve always considered it a great blessing to be able to play in front of my friends and family,” Ellis said.
Ellis helped the Indians in 1997 and 1998 and starred in 1999 and 2000. His presence is still felt in the Catawba record book, He threw for 5,550 yards (fourth all-time) and 45 touchdowns. He had a 386-yard passing game against Carson-Newman in the 1999 D-II playoffs that was record-breaking for that era.
Ellis has spent most of his post-playing days coaching and was on the Catawba staff for the 2011 season.
He put in five seasons at R.J. Reynolds. Ellis went to York, South Carolina, when Reynolds head coach Mike Prost was hired there. Ellis has been at Lexington High the past three years and is currently the quarterbacks coach. He’ll be on the sideline for the Yellow Jackets when they take on North Rowan next week.
Besides coaching, Ellis works at the Lexington Alternative Learning Center.
“I always had people that helped me keep my head level, and I’ve got a chance to be a positive role model for a lot of kids that need one,” Ellis said. “I tell them they can make it, but they have to do the right things and make the right decisions.”
Ellis, 37, hopes to get a head-coaching opportunity someday.
He doesn’t dwell on the past, but like a lot of Catawba folks, he can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if it hadn’t rained cats and dogs on that November day in 2000.
Follow Mike London on Twitter at @mikelondonpost3.