Turn down a nondescript road off Highway 401 in south Raleigh and wind your way behind the modest school campus, which is hardly visible from the main road. There, tucked behind the tall pines, lies Wake County’s best-kept high school football secret.
Welcome to Wake Christian Academy, a small private K-12 school costing $7,675 per year at the high school level, according to the school’s website. The Bulldogs entered last Friday night’s contest ranked No. 23 in the N&O polls, the only academy school to bust the top 25. They exited the night with a 55-15 senior night blistering of North Raleigh Christian Academy — a lopsided score that has become par for the course — to run their record to 8-0 on the season.
But numbers of tuition, rankings, scores and records only begin to tell the story of this football program, which has its roots in eight-man play. The statistic that best explains it all is this one: Roughly one out of every three boys in grades 9-12 are members of the football program, a ratio so staggering it defies belief.
For comparison, top-ranked Middle Creek, ranked No. 7 in the state and located just eight miles from Wake Christian, sees about one of every eight boys come out for football while most other programs in the area operate at a ratio north of one in 10.
“I think it’s our success and everyone wanting to get out here and be a part of it,” said do-it-all senior Connor Collins, who caught a pair of touchdown passes in Friday’s win that clinched the N.C. Independent School Athletic Association Big East Conference title.
The Bulldogs have no doubt had plenty of success.
After reaching the state championship game a year ago, they’ve outscored their opponents 399-99 (an average of 50-12 per game) in 2016. After wrapping up the regular season Oct. 28 at Village Christian Academy, the Bulldogs will begin their quest to avenge last year’s title game defeat.
But that success hasn’t always been there. Collins remembers when he played on the varsity team as a freshman and the Bulldogs had fewer than 20 players suited up for games. Wake Christian hadn’t produced a six-win season since 2004 until Stephen Cochran took over as head coach in 2013 and the Bulldogs went 6-6 in his first year. Records of 8-5, 9-4 and now 8-0 followed.
“It’s enthusiasm followed very closely by discipline and organization,” Cochran said of the recipe for success he has instilled. “There’s a standard that’s been set and they know the standard.”
“Doing more,” is how Collins described the culture Cochran has imposed. “Whether it’s going all the way to the line, following through on the tackle, finishing the play. Every single moment he’s always emphasizing that. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s made us successful here.”
But Cochran also cites a different type of success as the reason for the budding football culture at the school.
“I think one of the things that’s happening is that these kids are having fun,” Cochran said. “Our coaches treat them with respect. We’re demanding and we have expectations for them but we treat them right and coach them up and they’re having fun.”
The fun that Cochran speaks of is evident at any Wake Christian Academy game. Onside kicks and fake extra points are the norm (the Bulldogs successfully executed one of each in the first half alone Friday) with an offense that spreads the field, rarely huddles and always keeps the opposition guessing. Even a wide receiver, senior Trevin Muse, had over 100 yards rushing in the first half against North Raleigh Christian.
While the Bulldogs’ football field doubles as their baseball diamond, the Wake Christian games double as a community gathering. As the team was scoring touchdowns on four of its five first-half possessions Friday, kids played on the baseball infield, members of the band’s horn section walked through the stands serenating the fans and the public address announcer made a point of announcing the name of every Bulldog backup player to get in the game during mop-up time.
“They have great relationships with one another,” Cochran said of the football program. “It’s a friendship. It’s a family. It’s togetherness.”
And that’s something that isn’t a secret.