As Independence junior quarterback Kelvin Hopkins walked off the field following the Patriots latest setback – this time a one-point heartbreaker to Porter Ridge on Oct. 4 after the Pirates converted a two-point conversion with zeros on the clock – he was in disbelief.
It was the much-lauded Patriots’ third loss of the season, and this time Hopkins had fumbled a dew-soaked football with Independence nursing a seven-point lead and knocking on the door of another score with less than two minutes to play.
His miscue ultimately set up the Pirates’ improbable game-winning drive, but instead of lamenting the multitude of mistakes and misfortunes his team had endured, Hopkins had taken all of the blame and pinned it squarely on his 5-foot-9, 187-pound frame.
As Patriots coach Joe Evans approached his star quarterback, he consoled Hopkins as best he could.
“He blamed himself for the loss,” Evans said. “I asked him had he given 100 percent and done everything that he could do to make sure his team won.”
Hopkins answered that he had, indeed, done all he could. And after Evans gave him one more reassurance, Hopkins dejectedly made the long walk from the playing field to the team bus idling in the Porter Ridge parking lot.
The cheerleaders and fans had already boarded, and when they saw Hopkins enter the lot, there were ever-amplifying shouts of support. And then the chant began:
“Kel-vin Hop-kins! Kel-vin Hop-kins!”
Hopkins heard the admiration, but hardly acknowledged it. Instead, he lowered his head and continued the lonely trek to the awaiting team bus.
While Evans and Hopkins both know the Patriots squandered too many chances and lost as a team that night, Hopkins’ demeanor and ownership of his mistakes are just the type of leadership Evans and the Patriots need.
They need it to live up to the expectations – some of which are unfair – that were bestowed upon their program before Evans had coached his first game and before Hopkins and his explosive offensive buddies had played a snap all together.
There was talk that Independence was going to be the team to beat long before the 2013 season kicked off, and there was good reason for the lofty expectations.
The offense was loaded with talent, with Hopkins and a host of sure-handed receivers including Charlotte 49er recruit Workpeh Kofa; Jamiek Davis, a transfer from New York who has several Division-I offers himself; and juniors Will Walton and Jamar Jenkins.
There also were linemen Tony Adams, an N.C. State recruit; and Chris Wade, a Furman commit; and running back Isaiah Robinson, a Wake Forest recruit – along with a number of other talented players lining both sides of the ball.
The early results were good, as the Patriots shut out their first two opponents and steamrolled Olympic. Then the losses started coming and the questions arose.
Independence has now lost three of its last four – their losses coming by nine combined points – but they aren’t ready to give up on their own lofty goals.
“When you lose a couple games, you have to re-examine yourself,” Evans said. “I did it as a coach with what I was and wasn’t doing. I talked to Kelvin and said ‘Look, if you make a mistake, than you have to own it. Wear that mistake and learn from it.’
If you don’t learn from it, that mistake is going to compound itself and it’s going to be that much harder to get better. To his credit, he’s done that.”
That ownership was on display as Hopkins lumbered off the Porter Ridge field last Friday night. The Patriot faithful appreciated what Hopkins had done and what he can do for this always-proud program as the season wears on.
“You have to deal with adversity,” Evans continued. “When you respond to adversity the right way, you grow from it. When you don’t respond to it the right way, you take a step back. That’s what I challenged them with after the losses – how are you going to answer? Are you going to tuck your tail or are you going to answer.”
Hopkins said his team was aware of the pre-season hype. People had said the Patriots were back to form for a program that isn’t too far removed from winning seven consecutive state titles and 109 consecutive games earlier in the 2000s.
“You try not to listen to the hype, but you can’t ignore it,” Hopkins said. “You go out there and play as well as you can and whatever comes along with it just happens.
“It’s been execution, self-inflicted wounds, a missed assignment here, a missed block or a penalty there, that’s hurt us. It’s little things, but the littlest things can change the outcome of the game.”
Those little things have led to three losses, an uncharacteristic number for such a talented team, but also have made the Patriots stronger and battle-tested – traits Hopkins and his Patriot brethren hope will help them overcome the tough start and deliver on their potential.
“(The losses) brought us closer, we work more as a unit now,” said Jenkins who, along with Walton, are the Patriots’ next big-play guys waiting in the wings.
“We’ve gotten much better and have built chemistry and improved day by day. We’ve had to have a positive mindset and go harder each play, but it will help us.”
Kofa, a senior captain, said it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the Patriots have gone wrong, but he knows the adversity facing them now will only make the team stronger as the season wears on.
“We have to finish games,” Kofa said. “It seems like we’re getting up on people, but we’re not finishing them out. We all have to come together and play as a complete game.”
It’s with the goal of a complete game in mind that the Patriots head into their bye this week. Evans said they’ll look to put the painful memories of three close losses behind them, albeit not so far away that they can’t be reminded how they felt walking off the field in despair.
Hopkins said the Patriots will come out refocused on winning their first Southwestern 4A conference title since 2008 and their first state championship since 2006, and when the pressure builds again, he and his team will know just what to do.
“Tough losses are the hardest ones to take,” Hopkins said. “I’d rather get beat by 40 than by one and seven like we have, but it made us a tougher team.
“We know how late-game pressure feels, so if it’s down the road, we’ve been in that situation where another team may not have been. We’ve gained a mental edge from the losses that we’ve taken and it’s going to help us in the playoffs and the rest of the way.”
Evans said he agreed, adding the heartbreak has brought his team back down to the basics of working hard, believing in each other and not caring what the outside world says of what they’re supposed to be.
Evans knows what kind of talent resides on Independence’s sidelines and sees promise in what they’ve began, even if the results so far have been mixed with mountains and valleys of emotion.
“A lot of people saying how good we’re supposed to be – it’s on paper,” Evans said. “Anybody can say, ‘Well, this kid should do this.’ These are still high school kids. The ball has to be snapped, the block has to blocked, the throw has to be made, the catch has to be made or the hole has to be hit by the running back.
“They’re going to make mistakes, but we try to eliminate mistakes and the guys who didn’t play big minutes like Will and Jamar have stepped up more. Workpeh has stepped up and is more vocal and Jamiek wasn’t even here, so we’re still getting better.”
While the Patriots have stumbled in late-game situations, their roster is still as talent-laden as anyone’s and they have a week to get it all situated before the rest of the conference schedule begins in earnest.
And, Evans knows, losses in September and October have the potential to build toward success in November when the games mean that much more.
“I think (the losses) humbled them a little,” Evans said. “They were a little too high on themselves and that comes from people telling them how good they were going to be and how good this offense is, and when you start believing that, you don’t play hungry and it doesn’t take much to knock that chip off their shoulder.”
The Patriots say they’ll get everything worked out this off week. Led by the talented and eager Hopkins, the Patriots have a field general willing to wear the results – just like Evans had hoped.
With the pressure of living up to an unrealistic hype off their collective back, Davis said the Patriots can focus on their ultimate goals.
“I don’t think it’s we’re trying to live up to the hype or whatever,” Davis said. “It’s performing at a level where we feel like we’re always getting better and focusing on accomplishing our long-term goal.
“We want to leave or mark. (Former Patriots) Hakeem Nicks, Chris Leak, the guys that have come before us did their thing and left their mark. We want a banner put up there for us and we want to be remembered for something. We have to be disciplined and we have to be in tune with everyone. We should never be stopped.”