Long before any team had taken a meaningful snap in the 2013 high school football season, the prognosticators had already penciled in the Independence Patriots as Southwestern 4A conference champions and the Charlotte-area’s great hope to take home the Class 4-AA state title.
And although they tried their best to ignore the hoopla, junior defensive back Adonis Alexander said that was nearly an impossible task.
After dropping three games by a combined nine points, the heightened pre-season expectations haven’t gone quite as smoothly as some of the Patriots figured.
“We probably came out a little more cocky than we should have,” Alexander said. “People did think we were going to walk over everything, so it may have helped us a little to lose. It’s refocused us, but we still have our goals in order.”
Fast-forward to Nov. 1, and much of the same realities hold true. Although it’s not been a perfectly smooth ride, the Patriots (6-3, 3-1)find themselves sitting in the driver’s seat as the team who controls their own destiny – something coach Joe Evans has been pleading with his team to be in a position to do ever since before the season began.
“If we lose this week, we put ourselves in a hard spot again,” Evans said. “I’ve been preaching to these guys, (saying) ‘Don’t get to the point where you have to rely on somebody else to win or lose to determine your destiny.
Your destiny is in your hands right now. Are you going to let somebody take it or are you going to take it and run with it yourself?’”
The Patriots (6-3, 2-1) will answer that question in their final two games remaining on their schedule that – if they win them both – will have Independence holding its first conference crown since 2008.
Even more, to win out and become conference champions, those victories would have to come against the Patriots’ biggest rivals – starting this week with upstart Rocky River (8-1, 3-0) and ending with Butler (6-3, 3-1) on Nov. 8.
The Patriots know their next two games will decide their conference fate and post-season seeding, but Evans said they have to treat them no differently than they’ve gone about any other game this season.
“We take the approach that every game is the most important game of the season,” Evans said. “But we’re going to make (the Rocky River showdown) a big game, and I think it’s going to be.”
While many of the great expectations originally laid with the Patriots’ explosive offense – which averages 43 points per game and features a number of college recruits, including receivers Jamiek Davis, Workpeh Kofa (Charlotte 49ers commit), running back Isaiah Robinson (Wake Forest) and linemen Tony Adams (N.C. State) and Chris Wade (Furman) – Evans knows the game will likely come down to a key defensive stop at some point in the game.
And, like last season’s one-point win over the Ravens when a two-point conversion pass attempt fell incomplete, Evans said his defense will be ready.
“You can’t plan the same way because everybody has different personnel,” Evans said. “Some things change and some things stay the same. (Rocky River is) athletic, they’re fast, they’re pretty well coached and they have a good scheme, so it’s going to be a war.”
The aforementioned Patriot standouts will handle the bulk of their potent offense, while a number of guys will need to match up with the Ravens’ trove of playmakers to give the Patriots a shot at containing one of Mecklenburg County’s hottest and most complete teams.
But Independence has a collection of defenders who are up to the task, starting with linebacker Jimmel Twine and defensive backs Deion Washington and Alexander – who have emerged as the go-to defenders on a feast-or-famine defense which has allowed 101 points in three losses but has held six opponents to eight points are fewer.
Twine is the Patriots’ leading tackler this season and is pressed with stopping the run, a skill which Rocky River uses extensively with Deron Davis, Elijah Jett, Rashaad Brannon and nimble quarterbacks Christian Allen-Brown and Naiil Ramadan.
“Our focus is we want to start with a conference title,” Twine said. “It’s a big game, but they’ve (never) beaten us. We know we have to come out focused and we have stop the run. They like to get to the boundary a lot and they have some guys who can catch it, too.”
While Twine will be among the Patriots looking to contain the run game, it will be Alexander, an all-conference selection last season, and Washington, a dangerous cover guy and return man, who will limit the Ravens’ passing game.
And they’re up to the challenge.
“We have to tackle better and have better communication, but we’ve already fixed that so we’re ready to go,” Washington said. “We know this is a big game, but it’s just the next one in line for us and we’ll be ready.”
Evans cautioned that the Patriots’ defense will have to play well, especially against Rocky River and all they can do offensively.
“They run some two-back stuff, they have a lot of playmakers and they can hit you with a long play real fast,” Evans said. “They can take it the distance any time they get the ball. When you have speed and you have people that can catch it, you can do a lot offensively and they do.
“I think they do a good job getting the most out of their players, so it will come down to who makes the most plays and to who gets the ball to their playmakers the most offensively and defensively.”
While the Patriots have had little trouble scoring, their defense will be the key to who wins the battle of Mint Hill and, ultimately, the conference championship.
With Twine, Alexander and Washington joining fellow defensive standouts Justin Messick, Kris Mangum, Cole Reynolds, Chris Turpin and Christian Colon among others, Evans said he likes his team’s chances.
“This is a big game,” Evans said. “We need to win it to have a shot at our goal of a conference championship. But to us, it’s the next game on the schedule.
“That’s what we’re preaching right now and we just have to be ourselves and we’ll be fine.”