Wake Christian Academy third-year coach Stephen Cochran has seen a lot change since he came to the program in the summer of 2013.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, all of that change has been positive and well received and now has Wake Christian on the verge of taking the next step.
Gone are the days of flying under the radar, scraping together a couple wins here or there and being content. For the Bulldogs, coming off of an impressive 8-5 campaign last season and an appearance in the second round of the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association playoffs, the bar has been raised.
“I just feel like the overall atmosphere of the program is a complete 180 (degree turn) from the day I got here to right now, and I think that’s just the excitement of the kids,” said Cochran. “The kids have a ton of positive energy, the fan base has a ton of positive energy, the administration has a ton of positive energy so there’s a lot of belief and there are higher expectations.
“People are starting to notice us in the community. It’s just good; we’re growing.”
Growth can be seen in the number of kids participating in the program (a little more than six dozen this season), in the participation in the weight room, in the new practice facilities, in the field house being constructed and, perhaps most importantly, in the number of wins the past two years.
Cochran’s Bulldogs went 6-6 in his first season at the helm and then 8-5 last year, including a win over perennial powerhouse Harrells Christian Academy and a first-round road playoff win over High Point Christian Academy.
If Wake Christian is going to surpass last year’s accomplishments, it will require a new quarterback to do so and it has two competent ones to choose from in sophomores Cody Carpenter and Nathaniel Williams.
Carpenter is a transfer from Garner and received snaps on their JV team a year ago, while Williams returns having played a handful of valuable games last year when all-state quarterback Luke Ryals was injured.
Cochran believes both will be able to run the spread offense and get the ball to several skill position players who should allow the Bulldogs to showcase a balanced but potent offensive attack.
Connor Collins (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) will be one of the main workhorses in handling the load in the backfield but will have plenty of assistance in Seth Bunn, Adam Jones and Grayson Williams.
Paul Gore, John Kirkpatrick, David Lewis, and Cardinal Gibbons transfer Robert Roe (6-0, 170) give the Bulldogs some nice options to look at for wide receiver.
The offensive line is another area where there are battles for playing time as Cochran assesses he can go 10 deep. A strong group of sophomores coming up from an undefeated JV team a year ago has bolstered that depth.
Despite the influx of talent, Will Cruikshank (6-0, 200) at center and Andrew Spain (6-0, 210) at guard have been three-year starters and figure to anchor a strong, physical line that will be asked to help block for the spread option as well as a little bit of a zone scheme.
“They respond to it; they like it,” Cochran said of the position battles on offense this preseason. “I think winners like to be held to a standard, they like to compete. It has been a great thing to see those battles and we have them at every position.”
The defensive unit should be strong and looks to continue a downward trend that has seen Wake Christian cut its points allowed per game each of the past two seasons.
Connor Collins will again figure to be a central piece to that unit both figuratively and literally.
After playing on the edge last year, opposing teams would often run away from Collins. Collins has thus been shifted inside to make it harder for opposing rushers to avoid him.
Will Cruikshank will be the quarterback of the defense at the “Mike” backer and Seth Bunn, who has had a great off-season in the weight room, should provide a formidable presence at nose tackle.
The defensive secondary saw three starters from last year graduate and although the Bulldogs have plenty of options to plug in back there, Cochran is still looking to see who can defend the pass and the run with equal success.
For Cochran, the success on the field the past two seasons has been nice but seeing the overall direction the program has taken and its increased connection to the community have been the victories he values the most.
“Watching the program grow in the right direction with the support that it gets is the biggest thing,” said Cochran. “It’s just the overall growth of the program and excitement that is neat to watch.”
Contributors: Seth Bunn NT/RB; Cody Carpenter QB; Connor Collins RB/LB; Will Cruikshank, OL/DL; Paul Gore WR; Adam Jones RB/DB; John Kirkpatrick WR; David Lewis WR; Robert Roe WR; Andrew Spain OL/DL, Nathaniel Williams QB.
Base Offense: Spread Option
Base Defense: 30-Stack (3-5-3)
Expected team strength: Defensive front and also the athletes/skill position players on the perimeter in the Bulldogs’ spread option attack.
Question mark: Has Wake Christian closed the gap with Ravenscroft? The Bulldogs trailed 28-14 in the fourth quarter before a couple of late Ravens scores widened the final margin last year. Ravenscroft has beaten Wake Christian in eight consecutive seasons.
Player they’ll miss the most: Luke Ryals. Ryals threw for 780 yards, ran for 439 more and accounted for 22 offensive touchdowns through the air and on the ground. The two-year captain totaled 72 tackles on the defensive side of the ball on his way to being named NCISAA all-state.
The main number: 27.54, as in the average number of points the Bulldogs defense allowed per game last year. That total dipped from 28.67 the year before that and 45.92 the season prior to that.
The quote: Cochran: “I’d rather be like Ohio State and figure out what to do with three quarterbacks than to try to figure out what to do with no quarterbacks-- I’ll take that problem.”
Game to watch: Oct. 2 at Harrells Academy. The Bulldogs broke an 11-game losing streak against the Crusaders dating back to 2005 in a heart thumping 52-48 win that Cochran described as “being a huge win for our program.” Ryals scored the game-winning touchdown with 23.7 seconds left in a game that Harrells has not forgotten about.
Past five seasons
2014: 8-5 (2-1), Second Round NCISAA Playoffs
2013: 6-6 (1-2), First Round NCISAA Playoffs
2012: 2-10 (0-5), First Round Playoffs
2011: 4-7( 1-4)
2010: 5-6 (0-4) Second Round Playoffs