CHARLOTTE – Country Day entered this season fresh off a state championship – albeit a Division II title they earned after a 5-5 regular season hardly distinguished them from the crowd.
But it was a state championship for the Bucs and their energetic, driven young coach Drew Witman.
He is a Country Day lifer. His father, Bob, spent 25 years as the Bucs’ head man, winning 11 state titles before his 2014 retirement.
Drew Witman spent four years playing for his dad and was on the 2010 team that last won a title before he changed that last season.
After that game, the Witmans hugged. I think both of them cried tears of joy. Bob was on the sidelines then but has returned to assistant coach this season for the Bucs, who have raced out to a 9-1 record. Last year’s state title win was obviously the biggest win of Drew Witman’s young coaching career, but Oct. 25 may take the cake now although each win from here on out may replace it.
“This one might be right up there if not above the championship,” Drew Witman said following a dominating 36-17 win over Charlotte Latin, who entered 7-1.
Country Day scored on a pick-6 from defensive back Sam Gilbert. A safety made the score 9-0 before the Hawks could even get settled in. That score ballooned to 29-3 before the Hawks scored on consecutive possessions to make the score 29-17.
But the Bucs wouldn’t back down, improving to 9-1 overall and winning their first conference title since 2012.
“I think the biggest step we’ve taken is when momentum shifts in the other direction, we don’t falter,” Drew Witman said. “To me, as a competitor, snowballing is the hardest thing to prevent. To give up that touchdown to close the half and then give up a quick score to open the second half was tough but we responded with a touchdown, which is outstanding.
“But that’s how it’s been all year. This senior class is extra special. They’re phenomenal, they’re strong and they’re confident. We’ve seen the confidence grow and grow, and I don’t want them to think it’s fake because it’s not.”
With the early lead, the Bucs relied heavily and successfully on their ground game, which has strengthened as the season has worn on.
Quintin Cooper (1,038 rush yards and nine touchdowns) has been the lead back all season. When he missed a game this month, sophomore Ricky Saunders (325 yards and two touchdowns) stepped in and has done most of his damage in the three games since.
It’s given the Bucs another weapon to an already loaded attack.
Quarterback Russell Tabor (1,327 yards, 14 touchdown and seven interceptions) has big-play ability and is a steady force at quarterback.
Senior Stephen Payne (27 receptions, 716 yards and 11 TDs) has been the Bucs’ big-play guy on offense, but like many of his teammates, he has been going both ways and excelling with 47 tackles and seven interceptions.
“He’s just one of those guys that is always on the field,” Witman said. “We have kids playing on both sides of the ball so practice is half and half. We flip the switch and have the same kids going on the other side of the ball.”
The Bucs will open the playoffs with the top seed, meaning everything will go through their stadium.
That’s a relief to Witman, who is settling into his new regular.
He’s now the head man over his father and over a team that has certainly arrived. He got married in July but is a hands-on coach who lives and breathes Country Day football. He jokingly said he may actually see his new bride some after the season finishes.
While that’s a stretch, this season has proved that same dedication has paid off for a man who’s also the coach of the Big South champions.
“I’m very thankful,” he said. “This is a relationship business. You get into it to build relationships with kids and adults. We put so much time into this thing, we demand so much out of these kids and I think that’s a part of it and the biggest life lesson. The price of anything is the amount of time you are willing to exchange for it, and these kids have exchanged a whole lot of things in their lives to be pushed as good football players.
“We’re going to keep pushing these kids because that’s the quality of kids that these are. They want to be pushed. They’re winners.”