Don’t Call It a Comeback

The undefeated Ardrey Kell football team has received strong performances from players such as (from left) Kalen Elkins, Quay Gilmore, Reggie Woods II, Nathan Turnbow, T.J. Stubbs, Anthony Pichirallo and Jake Elliott.

Back in 2010, Adam Hastings took over an Ardrey Kell football program that supposedly was entering a take-your-lumps, learn-from-the-big-boys, rebuilding phase.
Hastings had inherited a team that posted a 3-7 record a year earlier and was rife with unproven talent. Somehow, though, the Knights managed to go 8-5 and make a second-round appearance in the state’s largest and toughest classification, 4AA, in
Hastings’ first season.
It was a major accomplishment for an underdog team.
Then, in 2011, after graduating some major-college signees, the Knights put forth an 8-4 mark and again fought – some said overachieved – their way to the second round of the state playoffs.
So with six more college recruits out the door, including one to Notre Dame and another to North Carolina, the 2012 season finally was going to be rebuilding time for Ardrey Kell, right?
Well, check the records of Mecklenburg County’s football teams entering this week’s games, check the Southwestern 4A conference standings. Among the undefeated squads and league leaders, you’ll find the Ardrey Kell Knights (4-0, 1-0). They’re No. 6 in the South Charlotte Weekly Super 7 rankings, and entering their Friday, Sept. 21 home game against No. 5 Independence, they’re regarded as one of the best teams in the region.
Maybe, just maybe, people have had the Knights incorrectly pegged as underdogs for all these years.
“It’s funny,” Hastings said, shaking his head. “After the first year, everybody said, ‘Oh, they don’t have Justus Pickett (Maryland signee), they don’t have Drew Owens (South Carolina).’ Then after last year, it was, ‘Oh, they don’t have Jonah Duggan (Western Carolina), they don’t have Ian
Dibble (North Carolina), they don’t have Romeo Okwara (Notre Dame) …’”
Hastings shrugged.
“Our kids kind of buy into the fact that it’s not about a player – it’s about a team,” he said. “We’ve had some really, really fantastic football players come from here and move on (to college teams), and I think we’ve got some this year. I just think they’ve all bought into the fact that we all have to have a piece, and they’ve got to put their piece into a big puzzle. It’s the work of everybody, not the one, that matters.”
That, the players say, is why the Knights are 4-0 for only the second time in the school’s seven-year history, joining the 2007 team that won a program-best 10 games with that distinction.
And without a hint of cockiness, even though they lost 12 players from last year’s team to graduation, the Knights say they’re not surprised to be in such rarefied air. They say they expected all this – from defeating Union County rival Marvin Ridge for the first time in school history to earning a spot in local rankings.
“We worked very hard in the offseason, we got close during team camp at Western Carolina, and our coaches push us to be this good,” senior linebacker Anthony Pichirallo said. “We knew if we worked hard and listened to our coaches, this would happen, and it did.”
So what has surprised the team?
“How much fun we’re having – that’s been the thing,” Pichirallo said. “We haven’t really started out this good before, and winning is a lot of fun. It keeps us working harder so we can continue having fun.
“When you come in on Monday, you just look forward to the next opponent. You have the fun, but it’s time to get ready for the next one so you can feel (that enjoyment) again after you win on Friday. That really is the best feeling – when the clock hits zero on Friday night and you know that you came out on top of the other team. That makes you get back to work on the practice field the next week, and you love being there with your teammates.”
That approach seems to manifest itself every Friday night, starting with the way Ardrey Kell plays defense. The Knights allow fewer than 16 points per game, and sometimes, it seems as if all 11 Ardrey Kell defenders have decided to meet at the ball carrier in bee-swarming form. They hit hard, they play hurt, they take it personally when the other team scores.
“Our team chemistry is just absolutely amazing,” senior linebacker Jake Elliott said. “On the defensive side, we just all run to the ball, and we all get there. If someone else makes a great play, you feel like you made a great play.”
Ardrey Kell has some of southern Mecklenburg County’s top tacklers, with linebacker Kalen Elkins (43), Pichirallo (37) and defensive end T.J. Stubbs (36) ranking among the top 15. Close behind are Elliott (26), Drayton Mixson (24) and John Regan (24).
Stubbs also ranks second in southern Mecklenburg in sacks (7.5), while Elliott (4.5) is fifth.
“Our defense, they’re monsters!” senior receiver Reggie Woods II said. “We have to work hard every day against them. There’s no defense better than ours, so we get to go against the best, and that helps us.”
The Ardrey Kell offense can be scary at times, too. Junior quarterback Nathan Turnbow, who had the tough task of replacing previous dynamic signal-callers Drew Davies (Appalachian State) and Duggan, is a classic dual-threat performer. Turnbow limits mistakes, having thrown six touchdowns with just one interception. He’s also gained 291 yards and three more scores on the ground.
Turnbow’s top receiving threat is the enormously talented Woods II, a speedster who ranks first among south Charlotte players with 364 yards to go with his six touchdowns. Trey Ellis is second on the team with 156 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
And in a league filled with talented running backs, the Knights have one of the best, and most durable, in Quay Gilmore, who’s carried the ball a southern Meck-high 94 times for 595 yards and two touchdowns.
Hastings said each of the aforementioned players, both offensive and defensive, will have a chance to play in college – just like their predecessors.
“We’ve had 11 (college recruits) in two years, and a bunch of these (current) guys can do the same thing,” Hastings said. “With this group, it’s a testament to them buying into the academic part of it, because a lot of their (college) opportunities have been provided because of their academics.
“It’s a great group of kids to have. I think the first group of seniors we had here did a great job of establishing a culture of leadership, and with every class, it seems like it gets better. And these guys we have now really understand what we want in a culture of leadership and a culture of a team. I think it shows in their relationships with each other and how they play with each other.”
So now that everyone knows not to overlook them, no matter how many stars they replace from a previous season, how do the Knights go about things while being (gasp) the team everybody wants to beat? After all, they’re quickly shedding their underdog label.
Hastings smiled.
“We always prefer (being) the underdog,” he began. Then he stopped.
“Well, I say that, but I’ll be honest with you: I think coaches like (being the underdog) because it takes pressure off of you a little bit,” he said. “But the reality is, what we’re trying to get these kids to understand is that we don’t want to be the underdog. We want to be hunted, we want to be the big dog.
“Being the underdog means if you lose, you weren’t supposed to win. Well, we don’t want that. We want to establish a culture that we expect to win – we expect to win every game, and we expect to play to win. I want to be the favorite every game, because that means we’re doing everything right.”

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