‘The gold standard’: Pittsboro’s East Chatham Chargers sweep competition in youth football homecoming

Posted 10/6/21

PITTSBORO — As kickoff approaches, green smoke fills the air near the eastern end zone.

A large, forest-green banner is erected behind it as music blares off in the distance.

After a few …

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‘The gold standard’: Pittsboro’s East Chatham Chargers sweep competition in youth football homecoming

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Posted

PITTSBORO — As kickoff approaches, green smoke fills the air near the eastern end zone.

A large, forest-green banner is erected behind it as music blares off in the distance.

After a few moments, a group of 7- and 8-year-old players burst through the banner and slice through the smoke, emerging on the other side with their jerseys, cleats and game faces on.

This was the scene at Northwood High School last Saturday afternoon, but despite the theatrics and fanfare, the school’s varsity team wasn’t the one taking the field.

As is evident by the pregame festivities, the East Chatham Chargers aren’t trying to cultivate your typical youth football experience.

“The cheer director really wanted to get something more flashy and something that could be reused, so the banner’s new, the smoke is definitely new, anything to pump up the kids,” Chasidy Parker, president of the East Chatham Chargers organization, said on Saturday. “Everything we do is for the kids. We don’t always make every parent happy, but our goal is to make every kid happy.”

Along with the pregame excitement, the Chargers also have an announcer in the stadium’s press box that tries to keep the crowd engaged, excited and up to speed on everything that’s going on.

“I don’t think we’ve seen (any of this) when we’ve traveled this year,” Parker said.

The Chargers are one of Chatham County’s only youth football programs, consisting of five football teams — a 6U flag football team, along with 8U, 10U, 12U and 14U tackle football teams — and four cheerleading squads.

For the 2021 season, the Chargers joined the East Wake Football League — the same league the 14U squad had been a part of for a couple of seasons — which has the team traveling for four road games throughout the season to surrounding areas like Durham, Louisburg, Knightdale, Bunn, among others.

Previously a member of the Quad County Recreational Football League — which is also home to Siler City’s youth football program, the Siler City Jets — East Chatham chose to make the switch to the EWFL based on numbers and competition.

“We contacted (the East Wake Football League) and expressed interest in coming and they were interested in having us and it all happened within a matter of about four days,” Parker said with a laugh. “We felt like going to a bigger organization, where it’s pretty comparable to what we have as far as numbers go, was a safer bet and the kids would have a better experience overall.”

Last summer, the Quad County league went along with plenty of youth sports leagues across the country and voted to cancel all operations for the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Luckily for the Chargers, the non-profit organization had already prepared for a possible cancelation and while it allowed participants to register for the 2020 season, it decided not to collect funds beforehand, meaning it didn’t need to issue refunds once the decision to cancel was made.

And despite losing an entire season last year, East Chatham — running off of funds from the 2019 season — is having one of its most successful seasons yet.

“We have about 195 kids in total this year,” Parker said. “It’s been a lot of work, but the kids and parents were ready for football. Registration numbers were through the roof. We had a waitlist, we had full teams and everybody was just really excited to get back into football. The energy level is high across the board.”

Saturday was a chance for the Chargers, who are halfway through their season, to put that energy to work as they hosted their homecoming event, where all five teams were scheduled to play in Pittsboro on the same day for the first time this season.

All of them except for the 10U team — which had its game against the Clayton Comets canceled due to a COVID-19-related issue — took the field at Northwood in front of plenty of local fans.

And they didn’t disappoint.

The Chargers’ 8U, 12U and 14U squads went a combined 3-0 on the day, including two shutout wins — 34-0 in 8U, 29-0 in 12U — against the Comets.

The day’s tackle football games got started in the middle of the afternoon with a 14U matchup between the Chargers (1-3) and the Durham Firebirds (0-4), where East Chatham took an early 13-0 lead and held off the Firebirds’ rushing attack to seal a narrow 13-12 victory.

To start the game, Chargers return man Robert Tripp ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown, followed by a good two-point conversion attempt on a run up the middle by Nicholas Gregory.

On the following offensive possession, the Chargers managed to drive their way deep into Firebirds territory, where Tripp scored on a one-yard run — but East Chatham was stopped short on the two-point attempt — to give his team a 13-0 lead in the first quarter.

From there, it was all on the defense.

The Firebirds managed to score at the top of the second quarter after back-to-back-to-back quarterback keepers from David Logan Carpenter, a play that would be a thorn in the Chargers’ side for most of the game.

In the second half, trailing 13-6, the Firebirds ran seven designed QB keepers for Carpenter on their first drive of the half, racking up 43 yards and capping it off with a three-yard TD run to give the Firebirds a chance to tie it.

Carpenter’s size, playing against a team of mostly 13-year-olds, was just too much to handle.

“As you can see, there’s a lot of differences between a 13-year-old and a 14-year-old and their diets and body size,” Billy Johnson, head coach of the 14U Chargers, said after the win. “They’re just a little bit bigger,”

However, on the two-point try, Carpenter was tripped up by 13-year-old McKayl Smith — in what would be the biggest play of the game — who latched onto Carpenter’s ankle and brought him down just before he reached the goal line.

In the fourth quarter, the Chargers defense stepped up, forcing a turnover on downs on 4th-and-22 on the Firebirds’ penultimate drive, then sealing the win with an interception by Ty Willoughby with less than a minute left.

Their defense prevailed.

“Randy Cox is my defensive alignment guy and he just motivates kids and has different alignments going on,” Johnson said. “It’s a young team, but we’re trying to not give them the same alignments and give them different looks so that (the opponent) can’t guess them.”

The win was the first for the 14U Chargers, who sit at third place (out of four teams) in the standings for EWFL’s 14U At-Large league, just behind the Raleigh Revolution (first, 4-0) and Fuquay-Varina Bengals (second, 3-1).

However, the script was a little different for the Chargers’ 8U squad, which is undefeated (3-0 overall, 1-0 conference) in the EWFL’s 8U Mini Mites West Division and continued its streak with a dominant 34-0 win over the Comets on Saturday.

East Chatham scored on all five of its offensive possessions, using its ground game to reach the end zone on runs of 50 yards, 24 yards, 48 yards, 20 yards and 12 yards. (It’s worth noting that the 8U team plays eight-minute quarters on an 80-yard field, instead of 100 yards.)

With less than 20 seconds to play in the first half and the Chargers ahead 13-0, East Chatham quarterback Henry Krohn ran it around the right side on a keeper and bolted 48 yards to the house, untouched, to give his team an even larger lead, 19-0, at the break.

Krohn was responsible for two touchdowns on the day, as was Davis Parker, who scored one of them on a 50-yard dash during the Chargers’ first possession.

At halftime, Chargers 8U Head Coach Alan Fairey made a promise to his players: if they kept the shut out alive, he’d buy them all shaved ice from the Kona Ice truck near the concessions stand.

“I think that brought the defensive intensity a little bit,” Fairey said after the win, chuckling. “But we’re going to have to make up for it on Monday because it looked like the truck picked up and left.”

It was a complete team win for East Chatham, who heads into Week 6 of the season — where it’ll face the Knightdale Knights (3-0) on the road — with an unblemished record.

“We just did our best to not let up and I told the boys at halftime that nothing’s taken for granted and to put our best effort out there,” Fairey said. “They work hard all week, so it’s fun to come out here and see it come to fruition. It’s a great group of boys and coaches and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

The Chargers’ 12U squad, acting as the nightcap, finished off the day with a 29-0 victory over Clayton (1-3) to improve to a perfect 3-0 on the season as it stands atop the EWFL’s 12U Pee-Wees West Division.

So far this year, East Chatham has had success both on and off the field as one of the county’s only football programs outside of varsity and junior varsity teams at local high schools.

Without middle school football in the area, teams like the Chargers and the Siler City Jets strive to create an environment where younger players can familiarize themselves with the game.

“We are basically middle school football in Chatham County,” Parker said. “All of the kids in this area, this is where they come to play football. We’re working really closely with Cameron Vernon (at Northwood) and Jason Amy (at Seaforth) so that we can really focus on the kids and prepare them for high school.”

But as important as preparing players for their future high school careers is, East Chatham officials hope the experience it provides the fans and players is worth it on its own.

“We’ve felt like we want to be the gold standard (of youth football),” Bryce Smith, assistant coach for the Chargers’ 14U team and former East Chatham president, said. “Let’s keep creating some Charger pride.”

Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at vhensley@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.

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