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As Southern Nash prepares for its first North Carolina High School Athletic Association football regional final in 10 years, the 2019 Firebirds might find some inspiration from the 2009 team that started the program’s run of excellence.
The No. 11 seed in the 3-AA East bracket 10 years ago, Southern Nash produced three straight upset wins in the playoffs after losing two of its last three regular-season games. The Firebirds eventually lost a 33-22 heartbreaker at No. 1 South Johnston in the regional championship game to finish 11-4 but that started a run of 11 straight winning seasons. Since then, Southern Nash has gone 99-26, including 14-0 this season, which is a program record for wins in a season and consecutive wins.
Southern Nash head coach Brian Foster sees a parallel in that 2009 team and his Firebirds, the No. 1 seed in the 3-A East that will face No. 3 Eastern Alamance in Friday’s regional final at Southern.
“I think that team and this team, more so than any teams we’ve had, had that closeness and not just talking about closeness but actually caring about each other,” Foster said.
The veteran Firebirds coach, now in his 22nd season at the helm, said that while every team he’s coached at Southern Nash has been close, the 2009 edition — and this year’s — were a little different.
“I think those kids legitimately liked being with each other, like this year,” he said.
Somewhere along the way in the 2009 postseason, the Firebirds started punctuating each victory by singing the timeless gospel song, “This Little Light of Mine.”
“We did it at one of our devotionals and I was talking about how we hadn’t done what we were capable of and if God gives you something, you need to let it shine,” Foster said.
Senior lineman Eugene McFadden started singing the song after a win and it became an instant tradition, with parents and fans joining in the postgame chorus.
BUILDING THE BRAND
In 2009, Southern Nash was far from the perennial contender it is today. The Firebirds’ winning seasons were few and far between and perhaps the school was best known as where Carolina Panthers star Julius Peppers played. But even Peppers didn’t make the Firebirds a winner as their only winning record with him on the team was 7-4 in his junior season of 1997.
Foster was a first-year assistant on Ray Davis’ staff in 1990 when Southern Nash won its first 13 games before losing to Burlington Cummings in the 3-A East final. Davis, who directed the Firebirds to an 11-3 mark in 1991, resigned as football coach after the 1997-98 school year and Foster took over. He didn’t have a winning season until 2005 when the Firebirds went 7-6 and won a first-round playoff game.
But even then, Foster questioned if he was at the right place, wondering if he would ever attain his goals in rural Nash County.
Going into the 2006 season, tragedy struck as Foster’s younger brother, Jarrett — an assistant track and field coach at Clemson University — died in a boating accident in South Carolina in July. It floored Brian Foster, who was preparing for the upcoming season. But his brother’s death brought a certain peace to Foster.
“I knew where I was supposed to be and I knew that this was where I was going to finish my career,” he said.
The quote that was placed on Jarrett Foster’s headstone had an addition from Brian Foster: Be thankful, be prepared, love one another.
“That’s the three pillars of what our program is built on,” Foster said.
While the Firebirds went 7-5 in 2006, they suffered through consecutive losing seasons the next two years. But Foster was building his program, adding one former player after another to his staff, which now includes his oldest son, Zack, a former Southern Nash quarterback.
“They’re like my brothers,” Foster, who lost his older brother, Travis, in 2014, said of his other assistant coaches.
By the time the 2009 season rolled around, Foster’s team was reflective of the dedication he had put into the program. It was about a lot more than just football. Players were held accountable, both on the field and off, and college programs began to take note of Southern Nash as more than just the place where Julius Peppers played. Grades were seldom an issue and Foster and his assistant coaches made sure that everyone followed the rules — or they weren’t a part of the team anymore.
With a pair of sophomore wingbacks, Terron Huffman and Tracey Coppedge, who were short on size but long on heart and speed, the Firebirds won their first five games in 2009 before being handed a 22-12 setback at Nash Central in a nonconference outing against their county and 3-A Big East Conference rivals. Southern Nash then downed Fike and Northern Nash before a critical game at Hunt. The Warriors outlasted the Firebirds 28-20 on their way to the first of five straight outright or shared Big East titles.
Southern Nash lost 24-19 at Rocky Mount before finishing the regular season with a 33-6 win over Nash Central on Southern’s Senior Night. That left the Firebirds with a 3-2 conference mark, good for third place and their first playoff berth since 2006.
After knocking off No. 6 Triton 20-7 in the first round, the Firebirds would head back to Hunt to face the No. 3 Warriors, who had won six straight games. Hunt took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter but the Warriors wouldn’t find the end zone again.
Huffman scored a pair of TDs and a two-point conversion as the Firebirds won 20-10 in what was, at the time, the biggest win in Foster’s head coaching career.
“It was a special game, just awesome,” Foster told the Times after the game. “We will never have this Southern Nash team again — it’s a special group. It’s just a good night.”
The Firebirds then traveled to Hope Mills, where they ended the season of No. 2 Gray’s Creek, 13-7, to earn a shot at No. 1 South Johnston.
HEARTBREAK IN FOUR OAKS
Playing on a muddy field at Ronald Avery Stadium in Four Oaks, the Firebirds held a 20-10 lead at the start of the fourth quarter. Junior place-kicker Lawrence Sandifer had drilled field goals of 23 and 29 yards and connected on two extra-point kicks after TDs by Huffman and senior quarterback Chris Whitley.
But the Trojans in their spread offense rallied to tie the score late in the game on a 35-yard field goal by Edgar Herrera, sending the game to overtime.
Neither team could reach the end zone in either of the first two OT periods with Sandifer and Herrera trading field goals. Southern Nash got the ball first for the third extra session and senior Gary Tharrington ran 10 yards for a TD, but Sandifer’s PAT kick was blocked. The Trojans answered on third down with a TD pass and Herrera booted the PAT to end the Firebirds’ miracle run in heartbreaking fashion.
“That’s not real fun,” Foster said 10 years later.
But when he went to midfield to accept the 3-AA East runner-up trophy, Foster had his then 8-year-old son, Matt, in his arms. Matt Foster, now the Firebirds senior quarterback, somehow managed to get onto the sideline during the game and cheer on his father’s team.
“It’s crazy to think I was holding him in my arms and he was crying his eyes out,” Brian Foster said of the postgame awards ceremony.
A decade has passed since the Firebirds turned on their light and that light is still shining. Foster and his assistant coaches — Robbie Kennedy, Brian Batchelor, Brian Rice, Kwamaine Battle, Adam Monts de Oca, Sterling Leonard, Zack Foster and Jordan Bass — continue to show that it’s about a lot more than just football at Southern Nash.
“We’ve got a lot to be thankful for no matter what happens Friday,” Brian Foster reminded.