Charlotte Latin coach Larry McNulty said he’s back to having fun on the football field this fall after last season ended in a far different fashion than where it began.
To the casual fan, 2013 may not be much different than last season. The Hawks are currently 3-0 after starting 4-0 a year ago – a record they can achieve by beating their next opponent, Baptist Hill, on Sept. 20.
But to Latin players and coaches, this season couldn’t be any different – and that’s a very good thing, because the second half of last year went downhill fast.
“We know what we need to do to win this season,” said junior quarterback Daniel Jones. “Last year we were 3-0 and we thought we were alright, but we didn’t know what was ahead of us with conference (games). Now we know it’s great to start 3-0, but that really doesn’t mean that much.”
This season’s undefeated start is met with cautious optimism for the Hawks’ players who, after starting undefeated, were outscored 312-106 – including 202-41 in Charlotte Independent Schools Athletic Association games – the rest of the way.
The disparity on the scoreboard led to despair in the locker room as the Hawks dropped six consecutive games, including going 0-4 in the CISAA for the first time in at least a decade. That record is something McNulty doesn’t either hide from or attempt to sugarcoat.
“We got mauled (last year), but we used that as motivation all offseason,” McNulty said. “We put things in at the weight room to push these guys to the limit as far as mental and physical toughness is concerned and I think it’s paying off.
“We aren’t there yet. We haven’t played a real juggernaut football team yet, but we’re getting better and it’s been fun.”
Latin lost a spattering of seniors off last year’s team, but for the most part return intact – plus they’ve gained depth and invaluable experience at nearly every position on the field.
Take junior running Denzel Pearson, for example. He had 180 carries for 1,131 yards and 12 touchdowns on offense and added four interceptions as a defensive back last season.
Pearson is still ultra productive this year – rushing 38 times for 213 yards and three touchdowns – but he’s been spelled by Christian Mackey and Melvin Rouse, something that helps keep him fresh and effective.
“Last year, there were a lot games where Denzel was our only option,” McNulty said. “Last year there were games he carried the ball 32 times and got the mess knocked out of him, but this year he’s carrying it’s 12 to 13 times because we’re throwing it better, catching it better and we’ve got good skill kids everywhere.”
Carson Song was the Hawks’ leading receiver last season and is again off to a great start. Like Pearson, he’s been able to continue to be productive while getting time to come off the field at receiver and safety, where he’s a key member of the Hawks’ defense.
Like the rest of his teammates, Song has seen a change in this year’s team morale, which he says has been contagious.
“Our intensity, size and speed are different, but it’s also a lot about our pride,” Song said. “Last year we got beaten up and had to change things around, especially on defense, where I think our attitude has changed around a lot.
“One thing about last year is that we never gave up, no matter the score. We had to fight and keep pushing if it were late in the fourth quarter (of a loss) or the beginning of the game. That’s helped us.”
Song said the extra year of maturity and savvy coupled with the never-give-up attitude was on display in the huddle during last week’s 35-25 win over Ravenscoft. As the Ravens were making a late charge, and in a microcosm of the collective maturity of this year’s Hawks, Jones led Latin up to the offensive line.
Surveying the defense, Jones assessed the situation and did two things he either didn’t have the wherewithal, mindset or confidence to do a season ago. First he identified what coverage the Ravens were in and, even more important, called an audible that led to Hawks’ s touchdowns on two occasions.
“Coach Mac has put a lot of trust in him and it’s paying off,” Song said of Jones, who has grown from a skinny 5-10 to an athletic 6-3 since last year. “He’s made a couple of audibles at the line last week where he changed the play and we got a touchdown out of it. I can see how much he’s improved and he can see the defense better and has grown so much.”
Jones can see it, too – not only in himself, but with the whole collection of Hawks this season.
“I do have a better understanding of what we’re trying to do and also what the defenses are doing in their coverage,” Jones said. “But I’ve still got a lot of improvements to do with my reads and stuff.
“I’ve stepped up, but we all have become better leaders this year. We were all sophomores last year, but we were getting a lot of minutes and asked to do a lot. Now, we know what it takes.”
The leadership Jones and his teammates are showing is paying off and raising eyebrows among coaches, teammates and opponents who are set to stop a much more dangerous and confident Hawks’ attack.
“Daniel has taken a big step, he’s really throwing the ball nicely,” McNulty said. “He made a couple decisions against Ravenscroft that weren’t perfect, but were steps. Once he gets his decision making down perfect, he’ll be something. He’s got a good strong arm, he’s accurate and he’s throwing it to kids who can catch.”
The latter statement is something that may help resurrect the Hawks’ proud program. Whether it’s running backs like Pearson, Rouse or Mackey or receivers such as Song, Kanyon Tuttle, John Jennings or Alex Massardo, this Latin team is a far cry from last year’s group that started with such promise before fizzling with such disappointment.
“I think we came out this season with a lot of energy compared with the games last year,” Song said. “It kind of showed us what we’re capable of when we come out with that kind of intensity. It set the standard of where we can play and where we’ll need to play.”
Pearson added that while last year was tough, it has helped set the stage for what opponents should expect at Patten Stadium this fall.
“It made us build character going through that last year,” Pearson said. “We got knocked down and beat down but we kept fighting and kept getting up. That’s helping us this season.”
With the memories of last season and the promise of this team turning despair into conquest, Song said the Hawks are excited to see how high they can soar.
“We adopted that motto since the summer to keep pushing to change and to bring Latin football back,” Song said. “Personnel-wise, not a lot has changed, but we have a lot of guys who were here last year and who know more of what is expected.
“That’s a big difference and something we’re using to bring Latin football back.”