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The Carolina Crusaders have found what they needed ... A stadium they can call HOME

Members of the Carolina Crusaders home- and private-schooled football team huddle during practice Thursday at Allison Creek Presbyterian Church. For the first time in four years, the nomadic Crusaders have a home -- Chester's Joe Collins Stadium. Below, Crusaders coach Dave Horne.
Members of the Carolina Crusaders home- and private-schooled football team huddle during practice Thursday at Allison Creek Presbyterian Church. For the first time in four years, the nomadic Crusaders have a home -- Chester's Joe Collins Stadium. Below, Crusaders coach Dave Horne.

CHESTER -- On crisp Saturday nights this fall, the Carolina Crusaders will burst from their locker room under the lights of Chester's Joe Collins Stadium.

Their flag of Navy blue and Vegas gold will fly atop the press box, and the scoreboard will bear the name of their home- and private-schooled football team.

For the first time in four years, the nomadic Crusaders have a home.

"We're going to try to start our own traditions now," said Dave Horne, a 45-year-old Clover coach, whose son plays for the Crusaders. "We're wanting to give them some history."

Horne started the Crusaders in 2004 as a way to offer the game he loves to students whose sports options are limited once they grow too old for recreation department leagues.

The team has 26 players between the varsity and junior varsity squads. They come from Charlotte-area communities, including Chester, York and Lancaster counties.

The Crusaders are part of the Mooresville, N.C.-based Pioneer Football League, a six-team group that consists of players who are either taught at home or attend a private Christian school that doesn't offer football.

The lone Pioneer team in South Carolina, the Crusaders play North Carolina teams from places such as Concord, Lake Norman and Asheville.

In past years, the team has played its home games on neutral fields because of the lack of city fields and the cost of renting a public school's stadium.

Joe Collins Stadium used to be where Chester High School played its football games, but now is used primarily by rec league teams.

The Crusaders play "8-man" football, positioning three fewer players on the field than the version played by most high schools, colleges and professional teams.

Other than the number and size of the players -- the tallest Crusader is about 6 feet, 3 inches tall and the heaviest weighs around 215 pounds -- the game is basically the same.

The hits hurt, losing stings and winning brings euphoria.

But the one element the team lacked in its football experience was the feeling of playing on their own turf.

That changed when Horne asked former Chester recreation director David Linder if the team could rent the field. Linder was later replaced by Jack Sink, who followed up with Horne about using the stadium.

"He had expressed an interest in wanting to do something so that his kids would take some pride (in the field)," Sink said. "Making it feel like it was more their home field and not just something that they were renting out."

So last month, players and parents came to work on their home field.

"This is going to be your field as well," Sink said he told them. "They were excited about that."

They cleaned out the press box and locker room. They even painted their team colors on some stadium boards.

The Crusaders also plan to put a magnetic sign on the scoreboard with their name and hope to get a public address system. They'll also have cheerleaders and, for the first time, a mascot -- a cape-wearing knight played by a Crusader's 10-year-old brother.

"We want to give them a Friday night football experience," Horne said. "(But) on Saturday."

The team can't wait to finally have a home-field advantage.

Sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck after a recent three-hour practice at Lake Wylie's Allison Creek Presbyterian Church, three players happily talked about their home stadium.

"You kind of get a one-up on the competition," said Jared Terry, a 16-year-old varsity offensive lineman from Rock Hill whose mother is making the team flag. "They have to come to you."

In past years, the team has had to dress out before driving to their "home" games, then change clothes in their cars afterward.

Not anymore.

"It's awesome," said 14-year-old Zach Lucente, a junior varsity quarterback from York. "I'm loving the locker room."

The boys talk about the work they put into the stadium and the competition they've faced.

Some, like 15-year-old varsity quarterback Dalton Horne, have played for four years and never stepped on a true home field.

Beginning Sept. 8 -- the night of the Crusaders' first game -- that changes.

"It's just cool," Dalton Horne said. "We have something to call our own."

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