High school football: Standout linemen could mean big season for Wonders

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 19, 2023

By Mike London

KANNAPOLIS — Mike Newsome was a great high school football coach.

The state championships his teams won at Butler at the 4A level tell you all you need to know about his knowledge of X’s and O’s, and he won consistently and with high character at A.L. Brown for a dozen seasons.

But winning consistently in Kannapolis isn’t necessarily enough. In Kannapolis, it takes championships to keep people happy in the fall months.

So it was time for a change, both for Newsome and the program.

Enter Justin Hardin, who not only has a surname that ties him to the glory days,  but also the coaching experience and the energy to push the Wonders back on top.

The Wonders were only 6-5 in 2022, so they’ve got a ways to go to compete for 4A state titles. They gave up 58 points to Cox Mill and 45 to Hickory Ridge. They were whipped by Lake Norman and they were edged by Mooresville. Those four opponents aren’t 3,000-student Charlotte bullies, those are neighbors in the Greater Metro Conference.

So there’s a lot of work to do, but Hardin is enjoying the move back home. He quarterbacked the Wonders for his father, legendary head coach Bruce Hardin, in 1998 and 1999 and he got a chance to play a role on that 1997 championship squad, along with his twin brother, Blair, who was a receiver.

“I’m living now close to the school, two blocks from where I grew up,” Hardin said. “Kannapolis is a lot different now. The uptown area is certainly much different than it was when Kannapolis was a mill town. But it’s really an impressive town. There’s a lot to do. My wife and daughters (ages 1 and 4) really like it. As far as the kids I’m coaching, there are differences in kids now and kids when I grew up, but we’ve got great kids. I’m enjoying coaching them.”

Hardin has enlisted the assistance of several former A.L. Brown coaches, including strength and conditioning guru Todd Hagler and Jeremy Ryan, a former quarterback who was on the Wonders’ staff for 18 seasons and has coached with Hardin before.

There are 47 players on the Wonders’ varsity team. That’s not bad, but it’s also not a huge number of bodies for a school competing in 4A. West Rowan, the 3A program the Wonders battled on opening night, probably has a few more in the program than the Wonders do.

The Wonders do have some serious studs among those 47, so there’s a feeling the gap between A.L. Brown and the Mooresvilles and Hickory Ridges of the world can be closed in 2023.

It has to start at quarterback for any football team, and the Wonders have one who has varsity experience and is an outstanding three-sport athlete. Junior CJ Gray is the son of Charlie Gray, a Livingstone College and a former coach at several area schools. He has a big arm.

Gray will have talented and exciting target, including Xavier Chambers and Derrick Brazil.

Probably a safety at the college level, Chambers has D-I offers from Missouri, James Madison, Missouri and Marshall.

A.L. Brown can probably match offensive tackles with anyone in the state. Tai Buster and Paul Van Horn are both listed at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, and those impressive dimensions aren’t exaggerations. Braden Baucom provides 280 pounds of brute force at center. Drake Watts and Jakeb Johnson round out an imposing offensive line that will be aided by the blocking skills of tight end Rhett Hagler, a former offensive lineman.

“That’s a really good group,” Hardin said.

Mekhi Herron could be an important ballcarrier.

The Wonders have three returning starters on the defensive line, with ends Todd Massey and Makhi Nash and 265-pound tackle Chaz Knox. Jaevion Eberhart will be another important guy.

More potential standouts on defense are middle linebacker Ethan Garmon and DBs Chambers, Kadan Williams and Gerard Evans.

The Wonders will play more of a localized schedule than they have in recent years. There are no Rocky Rivers and Sun Valleys.

Besides the West Rowan opener and the six GMC games, the Wonders will be tackling South Rowan, Northwest Cabarrus and Concord.

The fan base is as energized as it’s been in a long time.