|Brand, Vance High Cougars hunger for state football title shot|
|Goal is school's first championship game|
|Published Thursday, August 16, 2018 12:16 pm|
Waiting until next year is getting old for Vance High football.
The Cougars, No. 2 in The Post’s Magnificent Seven rankings, are an annual threat to advance to the state 4A final, only to come up short. In the last four seasons under coach Aaron Brand, Vance has been eliminated in the West Region playoffs by a team that went on to play for the state title. In the last two years, their season ended in the region final.
“Our expectations don’t change,” said Brand, who is in his fifth season at Vance. “We fully expect to be around at the end every year and we tell our guys if you’re still playing when the grass turns brown or a different color, you’re doing something right.”
Brand’s motto – “All gas, no brakes” – translates to players as a fearless attitude, said Anthony Butler, a junior linebacker with the Charlotte 49ers and a Vance graduate. Putting in the work prepares Brand’s Cougars to maximize opportunities.
“What makes coach Brand unique is that he instills in all his players to have no fear and that every time you walk on the field you’re the best team, the best player on the field,” Butler said. “You’re going to have confidence, you’re going to play fast, you’re going to play hard, and I think that’s why Vance is where they are today.”
Still, the what-ifs of seasons past still tug at Brand, who is 41-16 over the last four seasons. Last year, Vance lost 20-14 in the state semifinal to Harding, which went on to claim its first state title since 1953. The year previous, they dropped a 26-20 result in double-overtime to Charlotte Catholic after missing an extra point that would’ve put them ahead in the final minute of regulation. In 2014, Catholic beat Vance 35-34 in the second round when Vance failed to convert a late two-point try.
“We’ve run into some hot teams and some buzz saws in the past,” Brand said. “High school football nowadays comes down to who’s the best team that night. “At some point, we’ve got to be the best team on that night in the biggest game. Harding was on a roll all last year, especially mid-year when they got hot, but at the same time, we had opportunities to take that football game. I hate to say somebody wanted it a little bit more, but I think they did, and that’s tough to live with.”
Brand believes this year’s Cougars are capable of breaking through. Senior quarterback Nigel Summerville is a seasoned leader who grew up quickly in his first year as a starter.
“We won 11 games last year with a guy who had never taken a meaningful rep under center before,” Brand said. “Hopefully, we can do a little something extra with a second-year quarterback.”
On defense, Vance is anchored by linebackers of Power Echols, Steven Thompson and Solomon Sutton, all of who have drawn interest from Division I FBS programs. Their speed and versatility make the Cougars more flexible in defending the pass as well as the run.
“We think we’ll be better defensively,” Brand said. “We lose a little pass rush, but our linebackers will help make up for it.”
Living up to expectations won’t be easy for Vance. The Cougars open at No. 5 West Mecklenburg Friday, then face the I-Meck 4A gantlet that includes No. 1 Mallard Creek, No. 6 Hough and No. 7 North Mecklenburg. If they qualify for the playoffs, the chase becomes more urgent.
“Obviously, a lot of other people, myself along with our team feel we at some point have to get over this hump,” Brand said. “We haven’t done it yet, so the job’s not done. Does that mean we’ll not keep trying to get to the pinnacle? Nah, because we’re going to give it everything we’ve got each and every time out. At some point real soon, it’s going to happen.”
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