After rolling relatively unscathed through the first four games of the season, the Charlotte Christian football team got a wake-up call on Sept. 27 that may help them earn their first consecutive N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association football championship in school history.
The Knights had been dominate on both sides of the ball from the very start of the season, when they jumped out to a 35-0 halftime lead in their opening-week win over perennial private-school power Sun Valley. Since, they’ve continued to outscore opponents by nearly 30 points a game – despite playing a tough out-of-conference schedule.
On offense, the Knights have a plethora of players, including seniors Jeb Blazevich, a Georgia commit, and N.C. State recruits Bo Hines and Garrett Bradbury. Throw in stud running back Elijah Deveaux, who has offers from SEC schools as a junior, quarterback Austin Kendall and a host of other multi-dimensional weapons, and it’s easy to see why the Knights could sit back and watch the offense carry them.
But that’s never been the case, especially following a late September trip to Virginia’s Liberty Christian – a team that’s gone 103-8 since 2004 –where the Knights narrowly escaped with a win, scoring late to claim a 32-31 road victory.
The aforementioned offense had bailed Charlotte Christian out on that night, but it was the defense that may have taken the biggest step from the close call.
“When you go four games and don’t have anyone score on you pretty much and you go to Liberty Christian and they score points, it humbles you and lets you know that you’re not there yet,” junior linebacker C.J. Nash said. “So we came back and worked harder. When you think you’re at your peak, you’re just getting started, so we came in and worked hard and the results showed. We got it done.”
Nash is referring to the Knights next game, against rival Charlotte Latin in the opening-week of CISAA play. Charlotte Christian jumped out to a 35-3 lead before coasting to a 38-3 undressing of a Hawks’ team expected to challenge the Knights for conference supremacy.
“Last week, we wanted to send a message when we opened up conference – not only to Latin, but to Country Day, (Providence Day) and Ravenscroft and everybody else,” defensive back David Hogan said. “We know our offense is going to do what they do and is going to be successful. But we wanted to send a message that, when the game turns to the defense, the question is whether we’re going to step up and give the ball back to our offense in good field position with a chance to succeed.”
Hogan and his defensive mates could only smile when asked if that question had been answered.
Spurred by a stout run defense with two-way players Blazevich and Bradbury along with fellow lineman Luke Dexter leading the way, the Knights’ conference-opening performance left little doubt that the defense is more than up to the challenge.
“Our linebackers are playing well and our secondary is playing well,” coach Jason Estep said. “To hold Latin to negative rushing yards on their home field and for them to get most of their yards through the air, that was a pretty good night for our defense.
“Most people would say – and I’d say it, too – that it starts with our defensive front. But what people don’t think about is our linebackers and secondary guys are all second-year guys who got a lot of game experience last year.”
While many of the key contributors to this team’s nearly impenetrable defense got their first big-game action last season, they’re now the upperclassmen leading the next crop of defenders into the mix.
Gilmartin leads the Knights through five games with 40.5 tackles and has 1.5 sacks and a defensive touchdown; Nash has recorded 37 tackles and two interceptions; Hogan has 18 tackles and two interceptions and McClinton, the Hawks’ next secondary star, returned an interception against Latin 70 yards for a touchdown.
Aside from Hogan, all of those players, plus standouts Trey Linton, Conner Maitland and Dalton Gouveia, are underclassmen with very bright futures.
“I think people see our team as being an older team. And even though we have 18 seniors, we had guys that had to play so young last year,” Estep said. “Those guys are showing up this year.
“C.J. and Gilmartin are similar players. They’re both very fast, very physical and they’re both learning in their second year. Jaylon and Hogan are getting all of the young guys in position. We’ve had a bunch of sophomores who have had to play back there each week and they’re kind of the glue holding the secondary together.”
The mix of a physical and run-smothering interior defense, combined with a proficient group of tacklers at linebacker and a collection of ball-hawking players in the secondary has the Knights looking to add to their trophy collection this season.
Charlotte Christian has won a school-record 13 games entering their Oct. 11 game against Carolina Pride. But this may be the Knights’ most complete and best team they’ve assembled.
With a star-powered offense capable of lighting up scoreboards, the Knights know, if their defense can hold down the fort, a loss may not be in the cards this season.
“We talk to our kids about being a team and not having any one person be more important than anyone else. It takes 11 guys on all three sides to do it right,” Estep said.
“Yeah, Garrett, Jeb and Bo and those guys are great players, but C.J. is a great player, Jaylon is a great player, (Gilmartin) is a great player, our offensive line is great, our kicking game is good. We have a lot pieces that work together and right now they seem to be working well.”
Inevitably, especially as the weather turns colder and the opponents become more familiar, there will come a time when the defense has to make a big play at a critical point in the game.
When that time comes, they’ll be ready.
“Our defense is consistent,” Hogan said. “We focus on the guy next to you; if everyone plays together and we play as a team and don’t leave any gaps or holes in the defense, then we’ll be able to do well.”
After a close call with Liberty Christian and a dominating dismantling of conference rival Charlotte Latin, the Knights know they’re on the right course to bring home their first-ever repeat title. And if this season follows a corresponding path, this could be just the beginning to a very special Charlotte Christian run.
“I love my boys, man,” Nash said. “We know what we have to do and we’re all on the same page and looking to do the same thing. We just have to stay consistent, work harder and keep after it. That’s going to help us and that’s what we will do.”