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CATA Undergoing Cultural Change

Senior Trae Funderburk, CATA’s best lineman, plans to major in aerospace engineering and design airplanes one day. Photo taken by Enquirer Journal staff.

When Tad Baucom took the job as head football coach at Central Academy of Technology and Arts last spring, he knew there was something more important than game plans, practices, conditioning or the weight room.

It was his responsibility to change the culture of a program that had lost 93.3 percent of the time (3-42) in its first four seasons.

Times have changed for the 1AA school.

In 2011, the Cougars have doubled their win total from the previous four years combined, carrying a 6-6 record into Friday’s second round playoff game at West Montgomery.

That’s right, CATA is one of the nine football teams in Union County to make it out of the first round.

Central is coming off the biggest win in school history after rallying to eliminate Mount Airy 27-23 on the road last week.

To give an example of how far the Cougars have come in one year, it was those same Bears who put the Cougars out of the playoffs with a 35-point win (41-6) in 2010.

Mount Airy is a state powerhouse, with seven state championship banners — including the most recent in 2008.

“Last year we didn’t know how we got in the playoffs,” said CATA quarterback John Quintero, who threw the game-winning touchdown pass to fellow senior Mitchell Blackburn with 18 seconds left in the playoff win. “We had two wins, ended up with 10 losses. We didn’t think we had a chance last year. We were like ‘This is our last game.’”

This year Mount Airy was a No. 2 seed, just like last year, but the Cougars came in a much different team.

“This year we knew we had the coaches and they’ve helped us believe that we could do it,” Quintero said. “We’ve got the mentality that we’re not going to give up. We’re going to go as hard as we can. You’re not getting by us easy. That’s what I think the difference is this year.”

‘Biggest win ever’

Baucom says last Friday’s win was “by far the biggest in school history” and who could argue?

The first half was a disaster, even though the Cougars moved the ball, because of three turnovers, but the defense kept them in the game by holding the Bears to three field goals in the first half.

“What I remember was going into halftime down 9-0 and coach Baucom, he brought all the seniors around back and separated us from the rest of the team. He said ‘The thing is you have 24 minutes left in your high school career. He said if you’re going to continue your career, you’ll start playing the way we have been this second half of the season.

“Once he said that, you could tell the seniors started getting that feeling like we weren’t ready to quit. Start of the second half, we came out playing every play like it was our last on offense.”

Quintero had the best day of his career, throwing for a school-record 244 yards and also rushing for 72 yards.

CATA scored 27 points in the second half, including 20 in the fourth quarter.

Ladarius Linen returned the Bears’ last kickoff to CATA’s 33.

“I remember being down with a minute and 18 seconds left in the game, knowing we had to score a touchdown,” Quintero said.

With 78 seconds left, 67 yards to go and no time outs, Quintero looked around in the huddle and said: “We can do this. We’ve been moving the ball on them all game.”

The Cougars finished with 542 yards of offense, and none were bigger than Sharron Washington’s catch on fourth-and-10.

“We started out with three incomplete passes and it came up fourth down and 10 and I throw a live-or-die pass to Sharron and he came up big, 55 yards,” Quintero recalled. “After he caught that pass, I was like ‘Yep, we’re winning this game.’”

Four-year starter Trae Funderburk, who stands out on both sides of the line, remembers Quintero holding the ball longer than usual.

“I’m blocking, I’m blocking, I’m like ‘Ball’s not out yet,’ so I’m still blocking,” Funderburk recalls of the 55-yard pass play that kept his senior season alive. “I see it go up and I’m like ‘Oh God.’ The whole line is like ‘Come on, catch it, catch it, catch it.’ It’s right there in his arms. Then we didn’t know how to react. We were like ‘Yes, yes’ but at the same time we’re sprinting because we had to get up to the line of scrimmage. So we’re sprinting as fast as we can.”

Quintero capped the winning drive with a 24-yard TD pass to Blackburn, a four-year starter at linebacker and fullback.

“I saw Mitch in the end zone and I was like ‘There he is,’” Quintero said. “He was wide open. It was a blown coverage.”

Quintero is the first 1,000-yard passer in school history. He has 1,012 passing yards and his 933 rushing yards rank second in school history. Former QB Charvis Barrino set the school rushing record at CATA with 1,019 yards in 2009 during a 1-10 season.

Chris Hailey ran for touchdowns of 8 and 14 yards in the second half of Friday’s win and has 746 rushing yards for the season to go along with Blackburn’s 490 yards on the ground.

Nick Crowell, who has six of his team’s 11 interceptions this year, caught a 48-yard touchdown pass from Quintero against the Bears.

Quintero called Friday’s second half “definitely the best offensive performance we’ve had all year,” but he’s also quick to point out that the Cougars wouldn’t be where they are without the stellar play of the defense this season.

Blackburn has a team-high 123 tackles this season, including 80 solos. Linebacker Josh Sawyer has 107 tackles and Funderburk, an athletic 6-2, 278-pound defensive tackle, has been in on 71 tackles — including a team-high seven sacks.

Funderburk fascinating

Funderburk will probably be the first CATA football player to sign a college scholarship.

He can’t go just anywhere, though, because Funderburk is brilliant.

“I plan to get a degree in aerospace engineering,” Funderburk said. “Basically, it’s designing anything that flies. It’s a lot of math.”

Funderburk is taking calculus right now and “loves it.”

“I will either get my first degree in math or physics, probably math because I’m really good at it,” he said. “After playing football, I hope to go to Columbia University for my engineering degree. I want to get to the point where I design my own planes.”

For now, Funderburk is a senior trying to will his team to the next round of the playoffs.

Like the other 16 seniors on the roster, Funderburk didn’t want it to end last Friday.

“A lot of us were exhausted by the end playing offense and defense,” Funderburk said. “That was definitely the hardest I’ve ever played. I don’t like coming out unless I’m completely dead tired because I’m the center of the defense and my backup’s not as big so I don’t want to come out and put a small guy in. So I played pretty much the whole game. We all played our hearts out.

“It was a hard defensive game. To hold them to nine points at the half after three turnovers against a team that primarily goes to the finals or semifinals every year, that was a huge accomplishment for our defense.”

Back to the beginning

Baucom knew his primary job was changing the way the players felt about themselves.

He started making a list of firsts for the program, including accomplishments like: CATA’s first-ever shutout, first win over a 3A school, first playoff win, first winning streak.

The list has grown to 38.

“We want to show them that they’re special, that they’re accomplishing a lot,” Baucom said. “I cut out all the stories from the newspaper and I remind them thousands of people are seeing this.”

In the offseason, Baucom motivated his team with a phrase that has stuck: “We’re not going to be the hammer anymore, we’re going to be the nail.”

“Everybody started believing in that, the thought of being the hammer instead of the nail,” Quintero said. “Now we have that winning mentality. Last week was an awakening for us, a big confidence boost knowing we went into that game as huge underdogs.”

The culture has changed at CATA.

Now the announcements include talk of the fan bus for the playoffs.

“Last year we had nobody at our games,” Quintero said. “This year we can feel the fan support behind us. It’s amazing to see the school spirit we have. It’s great.”

Most of CATA’s students go to college.

The high school graduation rate in North Carolina is 78.1 percent, according to ncpublicschools.org, and Union County graduated 89.1 percent in 2010.

Central Academy had a 100 percent graduation rate in 2010, according to Carolyn White, director of student tests for Union County Public Schools.

“This is like coaching an Ivy League school,” Baucom said. “They told me it was different, that I was going into teaching heaven, and they were right.”

One of Baucom’s favorite numbers is 68.

That’s how many players came out for the football team, including junior varsity, and all 68 are still in the program.

“That’s remarkable,” Baucom said. “I’ve been doing this for 31 years and I’ve never gone through a football season where nobody quit. It tells you what kind of kids we’re dealing with.”

Funderburk knows the experience has to come to an end, and hopes the program continues to build.

“A lot of us have played four years, and starting off it wasn’t good at all,” Funderburk said. “I think the legacy the seniors are leaving here is to never give up no matter what.” 

Written by: Jerry Snow, Enquirer Journal Reporter
Posted: Nov 10, 2011 by Deb Christensen

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