Coming into the final game of the season, Carolina Crusaders coach Mike Jensen wanted to give his team’s offense a wrinkle.
The change came when his team was facing its biggest rivals for the third time this season. He switched them from a pass-first spread zone read system to an old-school, downhill running wing-T offense that rarely threw the ball. But it worked as the best team you may never have heard of won its fourth Pioneer Football League state championship in the past five seasons.
“You have to give the kids a lot of credit,” said Jensen, whose team came from behind to beat rival Cabarrus Stallions, 30-28, at Fort Mill High’s Bob Jones Stadium Saturday. “In a week and-a-half we installed a totally new offense and they picked it up, executed and stayed the course.”
The game wasn’t always pretty. The Crusaders had three fumbles, turned it over twice more on downs and threw just a handful of passes while they relentlessly pounded the ball on the ground. But senior running back Frankie Martinez ran in a touchdown with 1:58 left in the third quarter to give the Crusaders its first lead, scored again with just about two minutes to play and helped seal the deal on defense with a key pass breakup on a third down pass on the Stallions’ final drive of the game.
Martinez and junior running back Darell Darling handled most of the work on the ground in the championship game, but this was a season-long commitment to football, faith and teamwork that led the Crusaders to another championship.
The organization, which is based in Rock Hill but attracts kids from all over the area, began in 2004 as a way for York County home schooled students to play high school football. From there, it has expanded to include others who aren’t good fits for their high school teams.
“York County is one of the best recruiting areas in the state, but most of the schools are primarily 4A and are big schools,” Jensen said. “Not everyone can start for a 4A school, so what we’re seeing is when the depth charts come out kids may be second or third on the depth chart. Some of them say, ‘I want to get some playing time and get some game film.’ We attract quite a few of those kids come in and most of them are skill players.”
The Crusaders don’t recruit, and have a good working relationship with area high school coaches. They mostly attract kids through word of mouth, websites and the pay-per click Google adwords service, but want kids to know there is an alternative that gives them playing time and game tape for college coaches.
Jensen said he’s had a handful of players play at the next level, and thinks this year he could have a few guys who are talented enough.
Martinez is a 5-10, 168-pound senior from South Pointe. He gained 1,059 rushing yards during the regular season and scored 14 touchdowns. Leading receivers Tyrone Goode, a South Pointe student who came up with a key third down reception in the championship game, and Maxwell Robinson-Gray, a 6-foot-4 receiver from Northwestern High School, fit the mold as next-level players, but to Jensen it’s about giving kids a chance to play.
“Most of the kids we get are likely not going to play in college, but we get some and we have a few on this team who can,” Jensen said. “The high schools are going to get their guys. If you can play for a 4A school, that’s where you need to play, but we still get some very good players – mostly skill guys – who can play and fit into our system.”
And the Crusaders’ system is one that works. The team won three straight PFL titles until last year, when an exodus of seniors left them with low numbers. But this year they retooled and next year Jensen expects to have a new crop of players and about two-thirds of the players back to make another title run.
As the players embraced and celebrated on Bob Jones Stadium’s field following their two-point title win, it all seemed worth it.
“I’m proud of these kids and what they did,” Jensen said. “They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity all year. We had two coaching changes, totally changed our offense and we stuck with it and rode it out. We couldn’t have asked for them to play any better. For us, we try to develop relationships with the kids and that’s what’s most important. To see them this happy is what it’s all about.”
Several local students are part of The Crusaders. They are: JV football players Colton Yager (Comenius) and Zephania Boe (Nation Ford); cheerleaders Savanah Pridemore (home school), Tanner Rayborn (home school) and Jenna Gardner (Fort Mill); varsity football players Dalton Moon (home school), Tucker Rayborn (home school), Ben Robinson (home school) and Luke Bronader (home school).