KINSTON – In the months prior to the start of the 2016 season Wayne Christian football was nothing more than an idea, or perhaps a dream.
Fast forward to 2023 and the Eagles are on the verge of becoming a North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association powerhouse.
Wayne Christian (11-1), the top-ranked NCISAA 8-man team in the state, faces third-ranked Rocky Mount Academy (10-2) for the NCISAA state championship tonight at 7 at Arendell Parrott Academy. Both teams enter tonight’s state championship game in the midst of 10-game winning streaks.
The game can be heard locally on 98.3 FM WGBR and online at Goldsborodailynews.com.
Wayne Christian played its first season as a football program in 2016, and by July of 2018 the program was temporarily suspended due to a lack of interest from male students within the school.
The program returned in 2019 and went 3-4, and 3-0 in the abbreviated 2020 season due to COVID-19.
In just its fifth season as a program, and despite having a total of 11 wins in its four previous seasons, Wayne Christian went 8-3 and captured a state championship in 2021.
Assistant coach Daniel Pugh took over as the Eagles’ head coach following the 2021 season. Wayne Christian finished 5-4 a year ago, and with a roster full of seasoned upperclassmen blended with talented freshmen and sophomores, the Eagles are in the midst of the best season in program history.
Wayne Christian’s high-powered offense that averages 47 points a game is engineered by senior dual-threat quarterback Oliver Thomas, who has passed for 647 yards and 11 touchdowns. Thomas has also rushed for 797 yards and 13 touchdowns,
“Oliver brings a toughness to our offense,” Pugh said. “He can throw it but he’s also a very dynamic runner as well. He can do all of the run stuff that we need him to do. Any time you can run your quarterback it definitely adds another element to your offense, because you can add another blocker into the running game. So, it really stresses the defense when your quarterback can run the ball. He’s a character guy, he’s smart, he’s our student body president, he’s a great all-around kid. To have him running your team is a big deal for us.”
Fellow senior Shiquan Ethridge has put his fingerprints all over Wayne Christian’s offense with 1,285 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns, to go along with 588 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
The Eagles have scored 46 points or more eight times this season, and have rushed for 3,170 yards and 51 touchdowns, while averaging 264 yards per game, and 10.4 yards per carry.
Thomas and Ethridge will certainly be counted on to be at their best against a Rocky Mount Academy defense that has held opponents to 15 points or less seven times this season. Protecting the football will also be imperative for Wayne Christian, as Rocky Mount Academy has forced 30 turnovers this season.
“Shiquan is just so diverse,” Pugh said. “He can do a lot of different things. He’s a dynamic athlete so you can put him at receiver and throw him screen passes, or run him down the field and he’s tough to cover. If you don’t have a guy who covers really well, Shiquan can give you trouble. But then, you can also put him in the backfield and hand it to him. He’s got great vision from that spot as well, and if you’re not disciplined with your defense, he can make you pay very quickly with breaking off some long runs.”
Rocky Mount Academy has its share of offensive weapons and averages 50 points per game. Senior running back Marti Mcknight has rushed for 1,218 yards and 23 touchdowns, as part of an offense that has rushed for 3,347 yards and 52 touchdowns. Rocky Mount Academy averages 278 yards per game on the ground.
Sophomore quarterback Gehrig Miller has thrown for 976 yards with 16 touchdowns and one interception. Miller’s favorite target is senior Cooper Epps, who leads Rocky Mount Academy with 20 catches for 536 yards with eight touchdowns.
Wayne Christian and Rocky Mount Academy have met just twice, with both meetings coming within the past two seasons. Rocky Mount Academy won both games, including a 42-20 victory last season. Rocky Mount Academy won state championships in 2014 and 2017.
Pugh is relying on the previous state championship experience of his veterans and their familiarity with Rocky Mount Academy, to be the road map that steers his team to the North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association 8-man promised land.
“I think our guys understand that Rocky Mount is a good program,” Pugh said. “They’ve played against them twice and have not been able to get the job done yet. I think they’re excited to get another opportunity at that. We didn’t play them in the regular season this year, but we kinda knew that there was a possibility that we might see them down the road. The guys are excited that they get a chance at them again this year. They also know that it’s going to be a good game, they’re a good team and we know they’re going to come with a good plan. We’ve got be ready and schemed up and prepared to play a good game.”