ACC Invites Sandhills Patriots to Title Game
A rather large family is heading to Charlotte for Saturday’s ACC championship game between Virginia Tech and Clemson.
And they aren’t just going to watch the game, they’re going to be introduced to the crowd that will fill Bank of America Stadium. And they aren’t really a family, but more like a brotherhood — a brotherhood that travels under the moniker of the Sandhills Patriots.
“I’ve been asked what it’s like to have 150 sons, and that’s what it is like,” said Tom Van Camp, a Patriot coach. “It’s like a big family. They are a like a brotherhood. They have each other’s backs.”
Van Camp and several other people organized the program with the idea of providing youth football players the opportunity to test their mettle against teams from other areas.
The program consists of three teams — the preps (8-9-year-olds), junior varsity (10-11-year-olds) and varsity (12-13-year-olds) — that compete in the Piedmont Youth Football League, based in Charlotte. They play teams from across the state in the league. The teams also play in tournaments where they have faced teams from other states and Canada.
And they have been successful in that varied atmosphere of competition.
It’s the varsity Patriot squad that is heading to the game at the invite of the ACC, where they will be introduced as a team at the end of the first quarter.
The young players, most of whom come from feeder schools to Pinecrest High School, have been on quite a ride the past three years, going 33-0 and winning three championships as members of the PYFL. The other squads have also known success, with the junior varsity team winning the PYFL championship this season.
But the recognition at the ACC game isn’t so much for the winning, but for the way they have gone about winning and building a program from scratch.
“The thing has really grown,” said Van Camp. “People really know about us and our reputation. It’s not so much the winning, but the way we conduct ourselves. We’ve had referees come up to us and make comments about the kids’ character, and many people have commented on the overall strength of the program.”
Part of that program was building a field at Southern Pines Elementary School. Money was raised, the field was renovated, goal posts and scoreboard installed, and an equipment shed built. The players in the program helped in a big way, using work days to help renovate the field.
“We had a lot of help from the community,” Van Camp said. “The kids have a sense of community — a little community inside a larger community. They take pride in that field and what they’ve done to make it special.”
Van Camp said that several other programs are using the Patriots as a model, the way the program was built and the way the players conduct themselves.
He also points out that the Patriots have 15 USA Football-certified coaches, all of whom are willing to work with the players beyond the playing field, and tremendous support from parents.
Natalie Dean’s son, Thomas, tried out for the team for the first time last spring. He was motivated by a close friend, Keegan Good, who was a member of the team. The 13-year-old eighth-grader at West Pine told his mother about wanting to play for the Patriots.
“His friend (Keegan) had spoken so highly of the program, and my son really looks up to Keegan,” Dean said. “So he came to me last spring and said he wanted to try out for the Patriots, that he wanted to be a part of the program.”
Thomas made the team, and there have been nothing but good things to come from that, said his mother.
“We were driving down the road one day, talking,” Dean said, “and I said to him, ‘You know, this has been a big commitment.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but Mom, the Patriots have made me who I am today.’ And who he is is a 13-year-old boy who has learned the importance of hard work, being there for your teammates and internal discipline.
“I’ve told the coaches that they changed my son’s life. It’s the best thing that has happened to him so far.”
She described one time this season where they were heading to a game in Charlotte, and it looked like they might be a little late. Her son said he had to call coach (Greg) Baggett and let him know they would be late. She was impressed because it showed her that her son was learning and accepting responsibility.
“It was recognition that he was a piece of the pie,” Dean said. “It he’s not there, the whole team suffers. It’s really like a big family.”
Dean noticed a subtle change this season when the team gathered to get fired up before taking the field for a game.
“They used to yell ‘Patriots’ before the start of a game,” Dean said. “Now, they yell ‘Brothers.’”
Sam Felta moved to the area with his family two years ago, and he tried out and made the Patriot varsity team. This year he was one of the team’s captains. He repeatedly used the word “together” when talking about his experience with the team.
“All the guys are pretty good guys,” he said. “We do a lot of things together. We travel to games together, and when we stay somewhere, we’ll eat breakfast together, hang out together at the pool.”
Felta, who played center, knows that the lights will be bright and the crowd large when he and the Patriots are called out to the field at the end of that first quarter. But he also knows that his brothers will be there right beside him.
“I’m a little nervous,” Felta said. “It would be worse if we were called out individually, it would be more nerve-racking, but as a team it will be all right. I know we’ll have each other’s backs.”
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