VALDESE — Thanksgiving is a time to count blessings, reflect on good things that have happened and look forward to positive experiences yet to come.
The Draughn football team will have a lot to think about on Thursday, and then again Friday.
The Wildcats (12-1) remain in the thick of their best season ever, having won the Western Highlands 1A/2A Conference for the program’s first league title. They have set a new school single-season record for wins along the way and last week won in their first-ever appearance in the third round of the NCHSAA state playoffs.
Draughn is on the deepest playoff run for any Burke County squad in a decade. The team gets to practice on Thursday morning, enjoy a huge Thanksgiving lunch together afterward, then make the trek out to Andrews, the No. 2 seed, on Friday to play in the 1A West Regional semifinals, just a couple steps away from a chance to compete for a state championship.
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It’s been a remarkable experience for the players, the school and the community, as well as the staff — and for head coach Chris Powell, it’s been a little spiritual, too, after the loss of his mentor Bruce Clark just under a year ago.
“Losing Coach Clark is one of the toughest things I’ve been through in a long time,” said Powell, who lost his closest confidant at age 61 in a car crash. “I had the privilege to spend a lot of quality time with him, not just on the football field, but at his home helping him out when he was in his wheelchair (after an unsuccessful neck surgery).
“So, I got to talk more ball and more life than I have with other coaches. He was a huge part of this program. I think one of the things I’ve missed the most this year is being able to pick up the phone on Sundays and talk the game plan with him. We talked every Sunday and every Friday, and he always wished me good luck before every game. That’s just something that’s been missing.”
Enter one blessing — Draughn was able to add Jonathan Winkler as defensive coordinator this year, and he has brought some of the expertise on that side of the ball that Powell used to solicit from Clark. It’s paid off well as the Wildcats have allowed just 13.7 points per game this fall, including 14, 10 and 14 in three postseason contests thus far.
“It’s like a whole stress was taken off me,” said Powell, who calls the offense.
Powell believes Clark has been with him and his team in key moments this year, like an acrobatic touchdown catch by tight end Eli Pritchard just before halftime at Owen on a play known as “N.C. State” that the younger head coach learned from the older one.
Or how about a little trickeration?
Last Friday, Powell leaned into Clark’s willingness to be a gambler on the sideline with a halfback pass play call on a key fourth down that resulted in a touchdown from Nigel Dula to Zach Pinkerton to set the final margin in a 19-14 third-round win for No. 6 seed Draughn at No. 3 Thomasville. Powell’s players also picked a Clark play out of a jumbo formation that converted the game-clinching third down over the Bulldogs.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’s watching and with us,” Powell said. “Some of these teams had an opportunity to beat us a few times, and even they have mentioned it. For us to be in a place now that no team in Draughn history has been is kind of fate, in my opinion.”
Facebook Memories have been a fond reminder of Clark to the DHS staff on a couple of occasions this year, too — before the first Mitchell game for athletic trainer Ali Miller and for Powell before the Mountain Heritage game. Both of those contests resulted in wins that locked up the WHC crown for the Wildcats.
“There were times this year in the regular season when something would pop up to let you know, ‘Hey, he’s with you,” Powell said.
Practicing on Thanksgiving and playing the next day are landmarks of a sort for high school football teams. This year’s Wildcats are the first Burke squad to have those privileges since Patton advanced to the second round in 2016, though that year had an extra week in the regular season and an off week before the start of the playoffs due to weather.
East Burke also did it the year before leading up to a third-round loss at East Lincoln.
“It means that you’re a dadgum good football team,” Powell said. “We’re sitting here and there’s eight 1A teams left playing in the state of North Carolina. And we’re one of them. One, that means we’re a good football team. Two, it means the kids have put in a lot of hard work. You’re almost four complete months into just pounding the ground and going after it nonstop.
“It’s something special to be here this weekend, and we’re making it special for our kids.”
After Thursday morning’s practice, the menu for the Wildcats will consist of smoked barbecue and turkey — following a tradition started by a Clark-Powell staff during a playoff run together in South Carolina — a lunch Powell promised from the outset of his Draughn coaching tenure that he’d prepare if his team ever made it this far.
It’ll be a moment of fellowship on a special holiday for what Powell called the Wildcat Family.
“I’m thankful for these kids,” Powell said. “I truly feel like I’m the most blessed person in the world. Sometimes, I feel like I don’t deserve all the blessings God has given me with this team. But I have a phenomenal group of kids who love each other. They love their teammates, their community and their coaches.
“And I’m blessed to have a great support staff. It truly has taken a whole entire group to make this happen.”