WITH A VICTORY over preseason favorite Mars Hill on Saturday, the Newberry football team can become the fourth in program history to open a season with five consecutive wins.
When informed of that milestone Monday, Todd Knight never blinked. The fourth-year Newberry coach likes the idea of adding another first to his teams list of accomplishments this season.
Maybe that can spark us, Knight said.
Newberry sprinted out of the starting gates like few teams in program history. Saturdays 47-22 thumping of perennial power Carson-Newman signaled that Newberry is ready to challenge for the South Atlantic Conference championship and contend for NCAA Division II playoffs.
The win helped the Wolves sneak into the Division II rankings at No. 24, their first national ranking since 2008.
The 47 points were the most Newberry has scored against Carson-Newman. The win marked the first time Newberry has defeated Carson-Newman in back-to-back seasons since the rivalry began in 1940.
While it might seem like Newberry has sneaked up on the competition, Knight had an inkling last spring that the Wolves were in for some good times this season.
Coming out of spring ball, the maturity level of some of our kids had changed, Knight said.
Knight likes to use redshirt sophomore quarterback W.T. Murden as an example of that maturity. Murden won the starting job midway through the 2011 season when he completed 65.2 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and four interceptions.
Then Murden won the coveted Iron Wolf Award after spring drills as the player who worked hardest in the weight room and off the field. That his starting quarterback won the honor pleased Knight.
Murden, who has completed 62 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions in the opening four games, is typical of a Newberry player these days. He is a product of Airport High. Since Knight came on board, a concerted effort has been made to recruit instate, shifting from a philosophy of taking Division I rejects and junior college transfers under the previous coach.
Of the 107 players listed on the Newberry roster, all but eight hail from South Carolina.
We take a lot of pride in the state, Knight said. We just feel like there is enough talent here that we can win with it. We want the South Carolina kid. We can keep them at home. There is a good brand of football right here. Everybody can see you play.
That is not to say Newberry has abandoned the JUCO route. Instead, Newberry has gone about seeking South Carolina natives who have gone away to school and want to come back.
Corey Washington, for example. The 6-foot-4, 200-pound wide receiver attended Georgia Military College for one year out of North Charleston.
That kid is a major impact on our program right now, Knight said of Washington, who leads Newberry with 76 receiving yards per game. He didnt want to stay at a military school one more year. He wanted to come home to South Carolina. We made that happen for him.
While he has stayed home to accumulate talent, Knight has gone out of state to refine his teams on-field tactics. His assistant coaches on offense visited South Florida this past summer and incorporated a few schemes into what they already were doing. The defensive staff did the same in visits to Virginia Tech and Appalachian State.
Building his program into a championship contender has been a four-year process for Knight. Step by step, Knight believes Newberry has moved forward despite records of 6-4, 4-6 and 4-6 the past three seasons.
We were a little green a year or so ago, Knight said. Now these kids have stuck in here. They believe in the system. They believe in what were doing. They expect to win now.
Mars Hill presents the next challenge for Newberry. The Wolves have not defeated Mars Hill since 2007 and have not gone into the mountains of North Carolina to defeat the Lions since 2006.
That is music to Knights ears.
Watch commentaries by Morris Mondays at 6 and 11 p.m. on ABC Columbia News (WOLO-TV)