CHARLOTTE – With 7:36 to play in the fourth quarter, Charlotte Christian quarterback Garrett Shrader’s high school career ended. As he came to the sideline to the awaiting embrace of coach Jason Estep, you could see Shrader’s smile protrude from under his helmet.
It was a smile of victory, but also one of content. Either way, it was a fitting end for Shrader, who had already let his presence be well known in a simply dominating 43-14 win over Christ School in much the same way he had since becoming the Knights full-time starter four seasons ago.
Now, as Shrader took off his helmet for the final time, he could finally enjoy all that he had helped create.
Since that freshman season when the Knights went 7-4, his teams have gone 31-3, won two championships and missed a third on a failed 2-point conversion try that cost them a win over Latin, once the biggest rival to a team that has rarely been tested in three seasons.
This latest win caps off an 11-0 season and keeps a 21-game win streak intact, all feats he and his teammates are aware of and happy to continue.
“This is a huge blessing and a long time coming for me,” Shrader said. “I’ve moved up the ranks with these guys. Three years ago we were chasing teams, but to go out like we did with a big target on our back is huge. But that big win streak where we’ve won however many games would not have happened without our coaches. It’s a huge shoutout to them, and we have great players around us on offense and defense and we go out and make it happen when we need to.”
Shrader certainly did his part.
He put the Knights up 9-0 on a 46-yard touchdown run and scored on a 45-yard run after Christ School had cut the lead to two points. Then, with the score 16-14, he left no doubt.
After Josh Eboboko put the Knights up 23-14 with a 17-yard scoring run, Shrader scored on a 51-yard run and tossed touchdown passes to Henry Rutledge (for 49 yards) and Ricky Kofoed (for 61 yards), giving his team every big play it needed.
The Mississippi State commit finished the game 11-22 for 207 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran 16 times for 180 yards and three scores.
“I think it was very important that he played like that for all he’s done for our program,” Estep said. “I know he wanted to go out on top, and he made the plays to do that.”
But this season wasn’t all that easy for Shrader. He was far from 100 percent to start the year following offseason shoulder surgery, and he limped around the field following his title game heroics.
In the Knights 6-0 opening night win over Charlotte Catholic, it was obvious Shrader wasn’t himself as he was 6-of-13 passing for 101 yards and ran 15 times for just 35 yards.
“This is extremely special,” Shrader said. “I had surgery in December and they said it was a nine- to 12-month surgery. I was probably 60 percent at the Catholic game because that was only month six. I really didn’t start feeling well until a couple of games ago, so come out and gradually get better and better has been tough.”
While Shrader’s star shone brightly in the championship game, he was far from alone.
Star defenders JT Killen and Kofoed began with Shrader as freshmen on that 7-4 team and have been every bit as responsible for their success.
So have guys like JB Awolowo, LJ Brown, Ben Williams, Obi Egbuno, Caleb Stephens, Ethan Cherne, Blake Long, Grayson Cadd and others who form a defense that allowed 6.6 points per game, easily the school record and nearly 8.5 points less than last season’s state champs.
So when Wake Forest commit Jeremiah Gray, the team’s best defensive back, went down with a leg injury early in the first quarter of the title game nobody blinked.
“You hope the next guy comes in and adds some value and they stepped up to the challenge like they have all season long,” Estep said. “That’s what these guys do. For us, you realize that each week we were the hunted. That’s a very difficult thing to carry, but each week we hunted, too. I think it was important that we didn’t lose that, ‘Hey, we’re about to go get after some dudes,’ mentality. It was important to keep that, and they did.”
The Knights close the season 11-0 and will go down as perhaps the best private school ever.
“This is crazy,” said Kofoed, a two-way star committed to play tight end at Appalachian State. “Since we were little, we dreamed of winning a state championship and we did it. I can’t put it into words. This is awesome. Everyone dreams of going out with a state championship, but to go out the way we did was just incredible.”
And this team wasn’t one dimensional, for as dominant as the defense was, the offense may have been better.
Shrader teamed with running backs Williams, Eboboko and Rutledge, along with pass catchers Logan Jones, Awolowo, Rutledge, Eboboko and the sure-handed and rugged Kofoed, to form an offense that averaged 43.8 points per game, second on the Knights all-time list only to last season’s juggernaut and hindered this season since the starters rarely played fourth quarters and oftentimes entire second halves.
So, in the end, the Knights sealed their fate as one of the best and most complete football teams we’ve ever seen.
“When you look at all of our guys, from Kofoed to Killen to Egbuna to Williams to Eboboko to (Sammy) Henderson, those guys have won 30-something games and lost three here,” Estep said. “They’re used to winning. It’s a winning group, and they’ve done nothing but win here. Three years ago, we went for (the 2-point conversion) because I thought we could with this group. It’s going to be very difficult to replace these guys and what they’ve done here.
“Every year you graduate guys and wonder how you’re going to replace them, but this group is seriously good.”