When Emerson Martin took over as head football coach at Village Christian two years ago, he had eight players returning from a team that lost in the 2016 state championship game.
Two years later, after three trips in a row to the state finals, the Knights are finally state champions, following a 39-8 rout of Asheville School in the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association 11-man Division III football title game.
Martin, who teaches weightlifting classes, said the first challenge was getting students in his classes to join the football program.
“That let us have the first winning season in school history,’’ he said of the 2017 campaign.
When the 2018 season began, Martin felt all the pieces were finally in place to bring home a state championship.
“We had senior leadership from the year before,’’ he said. “That was the biggest part of everything in the turnaround. The strongest point was the way the kids came together, the way they became friends on and off the field, just their commitment to the offseason in working together.
No one was more important to the process than versatile senior Asa Barnes, whose 50-yard run for the first touchdown against Asheville helped set the tone for the championship game. “He is the best all-around player I have on my team,’’ Martin said of Barnes, who played multiple positions on both sides of the football for the Knights and rarely came off the field.
“From the starting point of the championship game, he ran harder than I’ve ever seen him run,’’ Martin continued. “He ran with a passion I’ve never seen him run with.’’
Barnes still had a bitter taste in his mouth from the disappointing loss in the 2017 championship game, a game the Knights felt they should have won.
“There never was a time when we were able to forget about it,’’ Barnes said of the 2017 defeat. “We really drilled it into peoples’ heads that we wouldn’t forget it, and it drove us to be better.’’
Barnes said he worked on improving his speed and stamina in the offseason, preparing himself for the grind of being a two-way performer for the Knights.
One of the biggest parts of this year’s win was taking the early lead, and Barnes said that was something the Knights tried to do all season. “When we win the coin toss, we want to get the ball and put up points quickly,’’ he said, “try to take their hope away.
“I felt like from the jump we were the more talented team and had to listen to what our coaches wanted us to do, execute and play together as a team.’’
Junior quarterback Tim Grate said Village avoided the mistake of getting overconfident. “The words of the week were stay humble, s tay level and don’t underestimate your opponent,’’ he said.
Grate said his goal was to make his reads and finish with no turnovers, which he accomplished.
“The offensive mindset was to score every possession,’’ he said. “If you score every possession, you’re more than likely going to win the game.’’
Now that the Knights have finally earned the championship, the next goal is to start the process for chasing the title in 2019.
“I have a lot of big expectations for them,’’ Barnes said. “I expect them to exceed what we did this year. They just have to not be complacent and always work hard.’’
Grate said the team needs to prepare for the offseason grind and just pick up where it left off. “For most people, it’s getting faster, getting stronger and getting smarter,’’ he said.