How often have your heard a football team — or any sports team, for that matter — wax poetic about changing a culture?
You go to enough games, you hang around enough athletes and coaches, and you’ll hear that refrain a time or 2000.
If a program’s struggling, whether it’s in the pros or in high school, sooner or later there’s going to be talk of the infamous need for a “culture change.” That’s just the way it goes, as collateral damage such as coaches getting fired and player benchings take place.
So we wait for the culture change. And we wait. And we wait.
And things usually stay the same, for any number of reasons.
As the Independent Tribune’s sports editor, I don’t cheer for any of our local teams to win, unless they’re playing teams from out of town in a state championship setting. So I had no vested interest in the Friday night matchup between Cream of Cabarrus No. 1 Northwest Cabarrus and No. 3 Cox Mill Friday night.
But when it was over, and the Chargers had taken a dramatic 41-34 victory over the Trojans to win a share of the South Piedmont 3A Conference title, I can honestly say I was happy for the Cox Mill players and coaches as they celebrated their improbable accomplishment: getting a taste of their first conference championship in program history.
I know the word “improbable” might offend some close to the Cox Mill program. But that’s what it was.
Think about it:
Northwest Cabarrus had won 22 consecutive regular-season games, dating back to 2017. Mixed in there, the Trojans had won 10 straight SPC games. And the last time Northwest and Cox Mill played, in a non-conference game a little over a month ago, that turned out to be a 30-point win for the Trojans.
And, well, if we’re honest, Cox Mill just hasn’t had a track record for doing the improbable throughout the years.
Until last year, when the turnaround began and they posted eight big victories, the Chargers had a COMBINED eight wins over the previous three seasons.
But that’s what made Friday night special, so very special, to witness. Because we all got to see what happens when culture change truly takes place.
These Chargers made sure we took notice.
I’ve seen most of Northwest’s biggest games over the past three seasons, but I’ve never seen the Trojans get handled the way Cox Mill did handled them Friday.
The Chargers were tougher, mentally and physically.
In the first quarter, Northwest jumped out to a 7-0 lead, and people’s minds began to wonder if we were about to see another blowout in this matchup.
The Chargers came back with an emphatic answer, an 89-yard touchdown pass from Varney Farhnbullah to Christian Henry that looked way too easy against a vaunted Northwest squad. It sent a message that this wasn’t going to be another one of those nights, that these weren’t the same old Chargers.
Then Cox Mill started muscling through the Northwest defense with the powerful running of Jeylnn Barnett, who seemed to be doing Earl Campbell imitations as he carried the ball behind an offensive line intent on moving people. And when the linemen didn’t do it, Barnett moved Trojans himself.
“It means a whole lot to us, being the first team in (Cox Mill) history to win the SPC,” Barnett said. “We really wanted this. We already knew. We planned it out. We knew what they were going to do, and we came out and punched them in the mouth early.”
The Trojans rallied. That’s what they do. When their backs are against the wall, they still believe they can win. Over these past few years, as Northwest has made some mesmerizing comebacks to keeps its impressive streak going, that resolve has produced some of the best football moments in Cabarrus County.
Anyone who follows the game here has tipped his cap to wait Northwest coach Brandon Gentry has done for the Trojans once-moribund program.
And now there’s another bunch that deserves that kind of respect: Coach Craig Stewart and his Chargers. Because they didn’t allow the Trojans to come back and win.
Last year, the Chargers made giants steps, facing the Trojans in the SPC championship game before losing in overtime. But when they lost a bevy of seniors to graduation last year, a few of them among the best players in program history, many of us doubted Cox Mill cold continue that high level of play, especially bringing in a brand-new quarterback and several defensive players not quite at the level of those who graduated.
But these Chargers showed people. Their coaches did what good coaches do. And even when low moments arose during the season, they kept working, kept believing.
And here they are, sharing the SPC crown that, just a few years ago, nobody thought they’d ever sniff.
“It’s been a process,” said senior defensive back and team leader Wesley Poindexter. “My freshman and my sophomore year, we were 3-8 both years. That’s an unacceptable record, and we just changed the mentality of the program. We changed how people have to look at Cox Mill. I think since we’ve been open (as a school), people have been saying, ‘That’s an easy win, that’s Cox Mill. That’s a pushover game. Let’s look to the next week.’
“We’ve changed that,” Poindexter added. “We’ve changed the mentality. We’ve competed for a conference championship two years in a row, and we won it this year. People are going to have to start putting respect on Cox Mill football’s name, because we earned it.”
Just like Northwest, that’s what I love about what Cox Mill has done. Most of the players out there Friday night were homegrown Cox Mill kids, athletes who have come through the program as JV players and bought into the system.
The culture, if you will.
“This means the world,” Poindexter said. “This will forever be one of the greatest nights of my life. I’ll always remember this night. Ultimately, this means I get to put — excuse me, WE — get to put a banner in that gymnasium. You go in that Cox Mill gym, and you’ll see a lot of banners for a lot of different sports. One that you don’t see right now is football, but we’ll get to hang one up in there soon.”