CONCORD – The players on the Central Cabarrus softball team claim their head coach is tough on them.
But come on now.
What kind of tough-guy coach lets his players call him by his first name?
What kind of hardcore coach lets out belly-laughs as he’s having footraces with his players during workouts?
And, of all things, what kind of uber-tough coach do you know who shamelessly does a dance called the ‘Charlie Brown’ in postgame huddles to entertain his players?
I’d love to see real coaching ogres like Nick Saban and Bill Belichick do that. But you won’t.
And those are just a few of the things that make Charlie Blackwelder different.
Blackwelder’s in his fifth season leading the Central Cabarrus softball program. It’s a special job for him because he graduated from the school and, most important, his players mean everything to him.
He isn’t the most successful coach in the team’s history – that distinction belongs to state-championship-winning coach Monte Sherrill – but Blackwelder has the Vikings back to a place where the locals can talk about winning state titles again.
This season, Central Cabarrus won both the South Piedmont 3A Conference’s regular-season and tournament championships for the second year in a row. And on Friday, the Vikings will travel to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for Game 1 of a best-of-3 series against Eastern Alamance. The winner gets to wear the Class 3A state championship crown.
Why are the Vikings at this stage, back in the final two for the first time since 2005?
Well, yes, they do have some talented players. They’ve got great hitting (a team-wide .330 average), strong baserunning (74 steals in 30 games), stout fielding (a .918 percentage) and remarkable pitching (senior Riley Tucker and freshman Brantleigh Parrott are two of the best in the state).
But what makes it all go is Blackwelder, who, yes, can be tough at times but is always approachable to his players and leads with the heart.
“I am hard on the kids,” Blackwelder admitted. “I do hold them accountable, I hold myself accountable. I wear my emotions on my sleeve. I’m not afraid to cry in front of them, I’m not afraid to tell my kids I love them, and I’m not afraid to jump on them when they need it.
“I don’t want to sugarcoact things for them,” he added. “If they do something wrong, I want to correct them -- but correct them in the right way. Sometimes on the field, I’ll yell and scream at them, but they know, in the long run, I’m just looking out for their best interests and trying to make them the best players they can be.”
A Viking for life
Blackwelder’s roots with Central Cabarrus and the softball program run deep.
Before graduating from the school in 1985, he was a standout player for the Vikings’ football team, earning all-conference as a strong safety. He never was really into baseball or softball until his daughter, Whitney, began playing T-ball and he simply became an involved daddy.
Blackwelder began coaching Whitney’s teams, and before he knew it, he’d become a travel-ball coach, and he and his wife, Susan, were spending weekends getting sometimes-painful suntans at faraway softball diamonds in the summer.
In 2005, when Whitney was a freshman at Central Cabarrus, Sherrill hired Blackwelder as an assistant coach. Blackwelder was hooked on the sport by then, so he spent any free time he had at coaching clinics trying to glean more knowledge to become better as a coach.
During that 2005 season, the Vikings were the No. 1-ranked high school team in the country, went unbeaten and won the Class 4A state title. Sherrill left for Alexander Central after the 2007 campaign, and Blackwelder interviewed to become his replacement.
He didn’t get it.
“I just went back to working and coaching some travel ball for Coach Sherrill’s team out of Taylorsville,” Blackwelder explained.
Eight years later, then-Central Cabarrus athletics director Kevin Bryant called Blackwelder and made him the Vikings’ mentor.
Blackwelder’s rookie season as coach was a bit rough at first. The team had some good players, but they were young, especially in the pitcher’s circle.
“The first half of the year, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this or not,’” Blackwelder recalled. “We weren’t very good. We were probably the last-place team in this conference at the time. But the kids worked hard, and they believed in the system we were putting in.
“We really caught fire in the second part of the season. I was starting five freshmen at that time. We wound up being the hottest team in the second half of the season and ended up being third, which was pretty remarkable without having any experienced pitching.”
That 2015 season, the Vikings posted the worst record (12-12) in Blackwelder’s tenure. They haven’t won fewer than 19 games in a season since.
“From then on out,” he said, “we kept getting better and better and better. And here we are a few days from maybe bringing home another state championship.”
What would it mean to Blackwelder to win the state title? In a word: everything.
He again eschews the tough-guy coaching tact of trying to act like he’s not geeked about this weekend. He doesn’t downplay what it would mean to his career.
“I’ve won (two) state championships in Legion ball and several in (travel ball), but this trumps them all,” he said. “Legion ball was nice and everything, but these things here are hard to win. You’ve got to be good, your kids have to believe in you, but you’ve got to be a little bit lucky also. Everybody at this stage is good, everybody’s fighting for it.
“I told the kids the other day, ‘To win a state championship at anything you do in your life – whether it’s softball, basketball or whatever – is incredibly hard, because nobody wants to give them away. Everybody wants one.’
“These kids have just responded so well,” he added. “We always set our expectations high at Central. We want to win the conference, the conference tournament and the state. But to be in this position is so real right now. When I wake up in the mornings right now, the first thing that comes in my mind is, ‘We’re going to be playing for a state championship.’”
Paving the road to success
There’s no denying that the reason the Vikings will be making that trip up the interstate is because of Blackwelder’s tough love.
The great thing is that the players don’t just mind the type of coaching they get; they crave it.
“He is pretty hard on us,” said Tucker, a senior headed to Catawba College. “He expects so much out of us, but it’s not like a bad kind of thing, where he’s always yelling at us. But if you mess up, he’s going to tell you you messed up.
“I’d rather have a coach tell me, ‘You messed up and you need to fix it’ instead of someone being like, ‘Ah, it’s OK.’ I don’t want to be coached like that. I’d rather be yelled at and told how I can get better.”
And when it’s all over, the Vikings usually laugh about Blackwelder’s tough coaching.
“When I go up to bat, he’ll come up to me and say, ‘Don’t you swing at that riseball’ or ‘Don’t swing at the changeup,’” Tucker said. “And then I go up there and take a freakin’ hack at a riseball. I turn to look him, and I’ll be like, ‘Oh, Lord.’”
Tucker clenches her teeth as she imitates Blackwelder's growling a response.
“He’ll be like, ‘Riley, I just told you not to swing at that!’” Tucker said as her surrounded teammates cackled while she shared the story this week. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, God, I’ve got to get a hit now!’
“That happens a lot.”
Moments later, Blackwelder’s hugging a player, high-fiving another or giving words of encouragement to a Viking in the dugout who he knows might be dealing with a struggle that has nothing to do with softball that day.
It’s a caring sentiment that resonates through the program, from Blackwelder’s players to his four assistant coaches: Scotty Furr and Trent Tucker (also Central Cabarrus grads), and Tim Parker and Mark Brooks.
The entire staff shares Blackwelder’s coaching approach of “be tough on ’em when it’s necessary, but always – always – let ’em know you love ’em.”
The players appreciate it, and they aren’t afraid to laugh at their coaches. This is where the dancing – if you want to call it that -- comes in.
“After a big win or something like that, when we all get in the huddle, all the coaches start dancing,” senior first baseman Destiny Thornton said. “Brooks will usually do some weird dance, Trent will try to do the latest new dance – he hit the ‘Woah’ the other day. Scotty tried to do the ‘Worm,’ and then Blackwelder did the ‘Charlie Brown.’”
At this moment, a group of six Central Cabarrus players are nearly in tears laughing about the moments after the Vikings beat Marvin Ridge last week to qualify for the championship series.
“That’s always fun,” Thornton said, finally catching her breath. “That always brings us together.
“I think during the game, Charlie’s always going to be super-duper tough on us because he knows how good we can be,” she continued. “He wants us to always make the plays we can make, he wants us to get hits. After a big win, when (coaches) do that type of stuff, it always brings us together. It gets some excitement going for the next game, because he knows what we just did.”
This season, of course, the Vikings are creating lifelong memories together. They’ve won 26 of their 30 games, and they just might get themselves their own special place in Central Cabarrus’ long sports history.
But even if they don’t win, their head coach has made sure they leave with something much more important: the knowledge that someone outside their own families has been willing to believe in them, invest in them – love them.
My guess is every girl that’s walked into Viking Stadium and donned the Green and Gold, JV or varsity, has known that feeling. I also believe that, beyond talent, that’s why this team has been so good this year.
“I love him, I really do,” junior Aniyah Tate said of Blackwelder.
“He really does care about us and the program, and he just really wants to see us get far and show our talent. He wants us to let everybody know, ‘Hey, we are a great team and we’re not a team to be messed around with.’ I appreciate that.”
So whatever happens this weekend, don’t be surprised if the tough-guy coach gets emotional afterward, right in front of his players. His dreams have come true in so many ways: He’s back at his old high school, he’s preparing the next generation of Viking adults for success, and he’s winning on the diamond while doing all of it.
“It’s a great situation for me,” Blackwelder said. “I’m just really happy that I could come back and, hopefully, lead this program to a state championship.”