Friday Night Lights: Atmosphere, Community Fuel Great Patriot Experience
When the undefeated Pinecrest football team takes the field for next Friday’s homecoming night game against powerful Lumberton, the stands on the home side will be packed. The electricity in the air will be palpable.
In the four years since head coach Chris Metzger began leading the turnaround of a program that had gone 3-40 in the four years before his arrival, the John Williams Athletic Complex has become a spectacular high school football venue.
Not unlike the fictional town of Dillon, Texas portrayed in the popular television series, Friday night football is a highly choreographed production requiring a team effort from a 105-piece band, cheerleaders, other student groups and many, many volunteers.
“There are a lot of pieces that go into Friday Night Lights,” Metzger said earlier this week. “We talked back in March of 2007 about this becoming a community-wide event. And that’s what it has become. Without a doubt, we have the best fans in America.”
Big Cheers for the Patriots
A new piece was added at last week’s home game against St. Paul’s when senior Catherine Naradzay made her debut as The Lady Patriot mascot. A member of the cheerleaders, she looked striking, exhorting the crowd by waving the Patriot flag in a classic outfit made by her mother.
Her duties sometimes even involve pepping up another cheerleader.
“It’s good, I get a lot of attention,” she said at halftime. “I like being down here. My job is to walk around and make sure everyone is smiling, has water and is loud. If they’re having a bad day, I make them happy.”
Students like Naradzay epitomize a Patriot Pride that was strong even in the dark days of 2006 when consideration was given to canceling the second half of the football schedule because of a shortage of varsity players.
In her ninth year as coach of the cheerleaders, Gayle Mace was recalling recently the signs of support for the team on people’s lawns and the long caravan of cars that followed the team bus to a game at Terry Sanford that season.
“We were loyal no matter what happened on the football field.” she says. “Most of the girls I have now have been here since Coach Metzger got here so they don’t know what a losing team is about. These girls are taking advantage of a situation that other girls would have loved to be in. They are cheering for a winning team.
“The girls that cheered here years ago really didn’t have that luxury. They would go crazy like they won the Super Bowl or something when we beat Union Pines when they were a 2A school. They should not lose sight of that and should bring everything they have to the game because it’s even more exciting with the bigger crowds.”
This year’s squad is made up of 21 varsity and 15 jayvee cheerleaders. There are seven seniors and 35 of them attended a summer camp at UNC. One of last year’s captains, Allison Haller, is a member of the squad at N.C. State.
“Every group is different and they do each have their own personalities,” says Mace, who is assisted by Sueanne Jones. “Sometimes I have a tumbling team and some years I don’t. Some years I have a loud team or a precise team and some years I don’t. I don’t care what year it is, they always love stunts.
“I’d say there is a little of all of that in this group. “They bring their talents to me and we make a great team out of them.”
For Ashlyn Douglas and Jordan Thompson, being captains of this season’s squad is more than just an honorary proposition.
“There are a lot of different personalities you have to deal with,” Douglas says. “Everybody doesn’t get along all of the time. You have to figure out what’s going on and try to fix it.”
They also have to help their teammates keep up with what’s happening on the field so they can react quickly to the ebbs and flows of the game.
“I was raised in a football-loving family,” Thompson says. “I pretty much know what’s happening, but I know a lot of the girls on our team don’t. That’s where we have to guide them, too.”
The Pulse of Friday Night
A big part of the Friday night experience is provided by the beat of the band.
“We really like the music because it pumps us up and gets us excited,” Thompson says.
Jim Muccio became the band director at Pinecrest in 2007 after filling that role at North Moore for 18 years. The Patriot band has progressed on an upward curve since then that resembles the fortunes of the football team.
The band is made up of a color guard of 14, a horn and wind section of 72, 10 battery percussion drummers and a pit ensemble of seven musicians. It is led by drum majors Jamie Lutz, a senior, and junior Alex Wilson. The band practices for two hours, three days a week. All members are enrolled in a band class.
Like the cheerleaders and football players, they worked throughout the summer getting ready for the season. In Muccio’s first year, Pinecrest participated in a band competition for the first time in 20 years.
“We’ve been working our way up in the competitions since then,” Lutz says. “In my freshman year there were about 60 of us. We’re up to 105 now.”
The band received superior ratings at all five of last year’s competitions, and more than 60 awards for excellence in various categories over the past three years. This season’s first competition was held at Pinecrest. On upcoming Saturdays, they continue a challenging campaign that will take them to Western Harnett, South View, Eastern Randolph, Union Pines and Lee Senior.
“Once you start winning trophies at competitions, it’s a really good feeling,” Lutz says. “Everybody feels a sense of pride for what we’re accomplishing, working together as a team.”
Before the Lumberton game, as throughout the season, the band will receive a meal provided by the band boosters. They will be wearing their new uniforms for the first time at a football game.
“It’s been a lot of fun since the football team started winning,” Lutz says. “It not only helps give us pride in what we do, but pride in the school as well.”
Flag Paints a Bigger Picture
In an area that has many military families because of the proximity to Fort Bragg, people tend to stand just a little more erect and pay a little more attention when the Pinecrest Junior Air Force ROTC Honor Guard presents the colors before the band plays the national anthem.
Talking about the program that currently includes 140 students, Sgt. Daniel Beasley addressed one of the misconceptions some people have about high school ROTC.
“The goal of Junior Air Force ROTC is to make them better citizens, not to get them to enlist in any of the service academies,” he says. “We let them know that the services are there, but our goal is not to push them in that direction or recruit them in any way.”
The cadets are involved in various service projects in the community in addition to serving as honor guards wherever needed. The overall program is under the direction of Maj. Steve Smith.
“That’s what we look forward to, reaching out to people,” says junior Hannah Lee, an exhibition commander who wants to make the Air Force a career.
For those selected to present the colors on Friday nights, it is an honor that provides a feeling of accomplishment.
“Even though were not a sport,” junior honor guard commander Nick Reed says,” we feel like we’re doing something good for the school.”
It Takes a Village
It takes a village and more to make the lights shine as bright as they do at Pinecrest for a home football game.
The freshmen and jayvee football players that number about 100, along with the cheerleaders, provide a welcoming party for the varsity players as they emerge from the giant inflated Patriot helmet before the kickoff.
The horde of youth and middle school players and coaches that came on the field last week on Youth Night are a sign that Friday night football at Pinecrest will continue to be a big deal. And behind the scenes, volunteers work, coach and contribute in many ways to improve and maintain one of the best athletic facilities in the state.
All of this makes senior cheerleader Megan Middleton feel like she is a part of something special.
“I think it makes us feel more important than a lot of cheerleaders around the state,” she says. “We’ll go to places and our crowd will be bigger than the home crowd. That really makes us feel like we’re doing our job to keep people involved.”
Last season a huge amount of excitement was provided by two home state playoff games that wound up the school’s record breaking 10-3 season. Because of the penalties that resulted from the fighting incident at the Union Pines game a month ago, the Patriots are ineligible for post season play.
“We’ve done well so far,” Middleton says. “We have to keep our spirits up even though we’re not going to the playoffs.”
Contact Charlie Bergmann at email@example.com.
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