When the Legion Collegiate Academy and Catawba Ridge High School football teams step onto the field on Friday night, fans will see a battle between two camps that have a lot in common.
Neither team has a region title to compete for. Neither team has a majority of seniors on its roster. Each program is in the middle of its first-ever season — and they both, at times, have had to hurdle similar obstacles, like finding teams to put on their respective schedules.
The list of similarities between the programs can go on, and perhaps that’s why this contest seems to carry extra weight: In many ways, it feels as if the scheduled spectacle on Friday night, featuring these two teams, is a rivalry game.
“There are two new schools in York County,” Legion Collegiate defensive coordinator Bobby Carroll told The Herald after his team’s practice on Wednesday. “York County has a strong football tradition, and everybody is trying to find their spot in the pecking order.”
Catawba Ridge head coach Zac Lendyak said his team has been particularly focused and energetic this week ahead of Friday’s game.
“It’s probably been our best week of practice so far,” Lendyak said. “I think some of that rivalry kind of talked has spiked their interest a little bit more, but I expect it to be a really close football game.
“We’re in the same boat, and starting programs is a challenge, but I think our guys are ready to come out and play well on Friday night.”
Legion Collegiate: ‘Closest thing to a home game’
The Lancers (3-2) — led by several legendary high school football coaches in Carroll, Jimmy Wallace and head coach/athletic director Strait Herron — entered their inaugural season with the eyes of this sports community squarely on them.
Even in the program’s scheduled season-opener, a game where Legion Collegiate’s opponents never showed up and never provided an explanation for their absence, the team drew quite the crowd, starting sophomore quarterback Joey Hylinski recalled.
“We wanted to give them something to see,” Hylinski said. “It was fun. There were a lot of butterflies going around. It didn’t go as we thought it would, but it was still fun.”
That scheduling issue turned out to be the first of a few scheduling conflicts Legion Collegiate has already had to endure this season: The following week, St. John’s High School canceled school all week due to the threat of Hurricane Florence, and Legion Collegiate had to scramble before contacting and playing Metrolina Christian, a team in Indian Trail, N.C.
After that, the Lancers had another week without a game of football, when Battery Creek canceled in Week 4.
Even from the games they’ve played, though, it’s tough to discern how good this team actually is: In Legion Collegiate’s two non-forfeited wins, the offense has looked dominant, outscoring its opponents 121-0; in its two losses — one being a game the coaches had less than 48 hours to prepare for — the unit has averaged only six points a game.
Needless to say, in many ways, Friday night will likely be Legion Collegiate’s first true test. And the team is excited for it.
“There’s a lot more energy out here,” Lancer senior slot receiver Carson Depass said during Wednesday’s practice. “It’s the closest thing to a home game that we can get, but the focus is the same every week...
“(We expect) a lot of people are going to be there because we haven’t had a lot of home fans this season. People want to take a look at what we are, what Legion is.”
Senior defensive back and wide receiver Webber Moore said he’s looking forward to a familiar, rivalry-type atmosphere.
“I’m a senior, so it feels good for me to have this one last rivalry game, like something big,” Moore said with a smile. “I like playing in front of a lot of people, and we really haven’t had it that much this season because all of our games have been away.”
Catawba Ridge: ‘Going to be intense’
Catawba Ridge will also have the chance to reveal its true colors on Friday night.
After opening its season with two wins, the Copperheads (2-4) have lost their last four. That said, their first pair of losses came at the hands of two traditional powerhouses from North Carolina — Charlotte Latin, and then after a short week of preparation, Weddington.
After a loss to Blacksburg, Catawba Ridge again traveled to the Tar Heel state to take on Charlotte Country Day and nearly completed a comeback in the second half — scoring 21 unanswered points before losing, 28-21.
Head coach Lendyak said his team is excited for its first opportunity to play another local team.
“It’s our first homecoming game, so we want to come out and perform for the fans,” Coach Lendyak said. “We haven’t been home in four weeks, with our bye week built in there, so for us, it’s just (a chance) to establish ourselves as a team that can compete with the teams in the upper echelon in York County. That’s something we want to work on this Friday.”
This team, like its future opponents, is led by youth.
The offense is run by junior Kayden Hager and sophomore Harrison Wilson, who split quarterback responsibilities. The defensive unit is led by sophomore and two-time Tri-County defensive lineman of the week Asa Johnson and defensive back Quinten Jackson.
And all of them, to put it simply, are excited for Friday night’s contest.
“I think this will be a rival team,” Johnson said. “It’s just because of the culture that we have with each other and all the competition.
“This game is just going to be intense.”