High school football: Walsh confident South is making progress

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 5, 2023

By Mike London

LANDIS — South Rowan head football coach Chris Walsh was out walking the dog when a lady spied his Raider T-shirt and let him know South had zero chance of beating her A.L. Brown Wonders.

She wasn’t worried about being diplomatic. She wasn’t worried about political correctness. She said what was on her mind.

“We’re playing y’all this year and y’all are gonna get beat,” she told Walsh cheerfully.

“I’m sure she had no idea who I was, but she saw my shirt, so she had to say something,” Walsh said with a laugh. “It’s all cool. It let me know there’s interest out there in the community. People are jazzed about having a new head football coach in Kannapolis (Justin Hardin). People are jazzed about South Rowan and A.L. Brown playing each other again in football. A.L. Brown has a good football team every year, but that’s OK. We play a lot of good football teams. This is a game that means a lot to the community, and we should play ’em. We need to play ’em.”

The game is scheduled for Sept. 8. You never know. South may be 2-0 (plus one open date) when that meeting occurs.

The schools, neighbors who are 6.6 miles apart, haven’t met in a regular season game since 2016. The score of that 2016 encounter — Wonders 65, Raiders 7 — tells you why they haven’t met lately. It was hard to call it a rivalry at that point. It was getting hard to call it a good way to spend a Friday night.

But there was a time when the South-A.L. Brown game was big in Kannapolis and there was a time when the game meant everything to South Rowan. Back in the early 1980s, the programs actually played three straight overtime games. They both were really good.

Those games were classic battles between the sons of men and women who worked together in the mills, attended the same churches and ran into each at the barber shops, beauty parlors and restaurants.

There are football fans in Landis, China Grove and Enochville who can’t name the first three presidents of the United States, but they can tell you the scores of all eight games over the years in which South, almost always the underdog, managed to knock off the Wonders.

“Except for me and Coach (Dean) Mullinax, who went to A.L. Brown, the guys on our coaching staff now are South graduates and they have their great memories from those games,” Walsh said. “Our young guys have watched film of past South-A.L. Brown games. Their eyes get big when they see how many people are in the crowd. How could you not want to play in high school football games like that?”

When Walsh was hired in May 2021, he asked what he could do to help the Raiders re-connect with the fan base. The suggestions he heard most frequently were a return to the traditional South helmet — and getting the Wonders back on the schedule.

“The helmet we were able to handle right away,” Walsh said. “The schedule took a little longer, but now that game is back.”

Walsh describes himself as “an eternal optimist,” but when he took command at South, he promised no quick solutions, just sweat and blood and a gradual growing process. South went 1-9 in 2021. South went 1-9 again in 2022.

When Walsh was a first-year coach at South, he was joined by a strong freshman class that Raider fans pinned their future hopes on.

A few members of the Class of 2025 took their lumps as varsity freshmen. Quite a few more learned the ropes as varsity sophomores.

Now they are all on the varsity squad as juniors. That one big class accounts for more than 40 percent of the players in South’s program.

Juniors are older, wiser, bigger and stronger than sophomores. So there’s not much doubt South will be better than it was in 2021 and 2022. How much better remains to be seen, but there are reasons to believe things are going in the right direction.

“We have a color-coded depth chart on the wall, with green for seniors, yellow for juniors, red for sophomores,” Walsh said. “Last year, the board was just about all red. Now it’s yellow and green. Practice has been awesome so far, and I do believe that what we’re doing is working. The coaches are excited. The players are excited. I realize that outside the program expectations for South may not be high and I know we’ll be picked to finish well down in the conference race. But we have guys now who have won football games. They’ve won middle school games and they’ve won jayvee games. They expect to win varsity games, and we’re going to hold them to a high standard and high expectations.”

What’s happened to South football?

For one thing, Carson opened five miles away in 2006, fragmenting the southern Rowan talent pool.

Over the last 13 seasons, South is 22-113 in football, winning roughly one of every six games. Ten of those 22 wins came in the four years that South played in the 2A Central Carolina Conference. There were a few nights in the CCC where South had the athletic advantage, but there haven’t been any of those nights in the SPC.

Walsh knows what the record books says. He has become a student of South football history since he was hired. He knows that winning three or four games this season would be a significant breakthrough. He knows South hasn’t won more than three in a season since it won nine in 2009.

“How many games we will win, I don’t know,” Walsh said. “I do know we’ll be improved. I do know we’ll be more competitive. We should be in more games and we should have a chance to win more games. But we play in a league (3A South Piedmont Conference) that is a very underrated football conference, and now you add a very strong Robinson team to that league. There are no easy teams in the SPC.”

Walsh said South’s football numbers are in the low 70s, which is a reasonable turnout for a school expected to have about 930 students. Not counting Lake Norman Charter, which doesn’t compete in SPC football, South and Concord will be the SPC’s smallest schools. While it is moving up from the 2A ranks by request, Robinson will fall in the middle of the SPC as far as student population. Central Cabarrus is the largest SPC school, by quite a bit.

Walsh will have an experienced quarterback, which is critical.

A year ago at this time, Brooks Overcash was coming off a devastating injury and competing for a varsity position. Now Overcash is entrenched as South’s starting QB as he heads into his junior year. He had a scintillating finish to the 2022 season, throwing for 294 yards and 295 yards the last two weeks. He broke a long-standing school record for passing yards in a game. Then he broke his own record.

“At the start of last season Brooks was understandably nervous,” Walsh said. “But there’s been a growing process, and he puts in the work. Now he’s gotten a lot stronger and he’s got the arm to get the ball down the field. He ran track but he still got in some football throws in the spring. He’s confident. He knows he’s our guy. He’ll be asked to lead the offense.”

Also keep an eye on the Richards brothers.

Senior Landon Richards will be the Raiders’ top running back. Junior Conner Richards will be the middle linebacker.

“Conner is a stocky kid who likes contact,” Walsh said. “He could make 100 tackles. He’s a tough, old-school linebacker. We like to say that if he had another 6 inches, he’d be Brian Urlacher.”

Richards will be a leader for the defense, which is being guided by coordinator Ronnie Riddle. Defensive assistants include Andrew Deal and Mullinax.

“Coach Mullinax is our ROTC teacher and Coach Deal is chief of police,” Walsh said. “Our defense will have some toughness.”

Deal’s late father, Larry, was South’s head coach for many winning seasons in the 1980s and 1990s, including a school-record 11 wins in 1983.

Only time will tell if the Raiders can ever recapture glory days like that, but Walsh is giving it his best shot.

South will scrimmage North Rowan in the Rowan County Jamboree at Carson at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 11.

South will host Monroe’s Union Academy on opening night. on Aug. 18.

“Our first two games are against Union Academy and South Stanly,” Walsh said. “Sometimes it’s good to break the mold and go out and play teams that your kids know nothing about. They play enough games against schools where they know every guy’s name and number.”

••• Season previews for all the Rowan County schools and A.L. Brown will be coming up in the Post as opening night approaches.