CHARLOTTE – This wasn’t your typical Charlotte Christian football team, but in the end, they made the most of it and won their third straight title by beating Christ School 38-21 on Nov. 8.
The Knights came into 2019 having won 21 consecutive games and two state championships with college-level talent who now play on Saturdays.
Charlotte Christian started the season well, drilling Sun Valley in the opener, but that game proved costly.
Starting quarterback Matthew Tuomala and star running back Henry Rutledge were dinged up, and the Knights struggled.
They first turned to receiver/running back/defensive end JB Awolowo to run the offense and later handed the quarterbacking over to tight end Brett Adams.
Both filled in admirably, but the Knights were out of sync with what they wanted to offensively, and were limited not only by the loss of their quarterback but also adjusting to losing those 23 seniors graduating last year.
“Last year, everyone knew we could do it because we had all of those people, but we lost a big
senior class and people doubted us,” said Rutledge, who ran for 183 yards in the championship game and nearly had 1,000 on the season. “We knew exactly what kind of team we were. We knew were a state championship team all season.”
But after the Sun Valley win, they lost to Valor Christian 56-6 without Rutledge and Tuomala and they fell to conference rival Country Day, breaking an eight-game win streak against the Bucs dating back until 2011.
But nobody panicked.
The Knights stayed the course and beat Charlotte Latin and Providence Day and then drilled the Hawks again in the opening round of the playoffs to reach the title game against Christ School, a team they beat 28-27 without Tuomala.
The junior quarterback didn’t move mountains upon his return, but he allowed them to get in sync offensively and move Awolowo and Adams back to their normal positions, although Adams missed the final three games with a leg injury.
“You don’t need to be bigger than the program, so I think Matthew went out and did his job and he did everything we asked of him,” coach Jason Estep said.
The Knights struggled early in the first quarter, maybe picking up one first down through the first nine minutes, but then a span of 19 seconds changed the game.
Rutledge scored on a 39-yard run, tying the score at 7 with 10:39 left in the first half.
On Christ School’s first play, junior Chip Kasay intercepted a pass and scored on a pick-6, giving the Knights a 14-7 lead they would not give away.
“One thing that I feel really confident in is our coaching staff making adjustments,” Estep said. ”If the kids are dialed in and patient, we’ll figure it out. They were dialed in, we got a couple touchdowns right there and we took them out of what they could do.”
The Knights started to look like the Knights of old as they limited Christ School to just seven second half points in the win.
Awolowo, the fiery senior leader, got the last offensive carry of the season, breaking through the defense for a 68-yard touchdown and the final 38-21 score.
“It was emotional. When I got to about the 20 tears started rolling down my face,” he said. “Coming from 2-2 to winning all of these games in a row feels good. People said we shouldn’t have been here, they voted against us and that makes it even more rewarding.”
Estep agreed. He isn’t big on comparing his now seven state championship teams, but seeing this team through was special for the coach who has turned the Knights into a dynasty with six titles and a near miss in another over the past eight years when his teams have gone a combined 77-11.
“I think this year was definitely harder,” he said. “In years past we had our personnel, but this was a bunch of guys that worked their tails off. I’m so glad for them that they were able to end it that way. As a coach, you want your kids winning championships and for them to be able to do that was awesome.”