Bears changing football culture, on brink of playoff return

Bunker Hill’s Desmond Anderson (1) making a tackle in the double-overtime loss to Patton on Friday, November 1. (File photo by Michelle Thompson)Bunker Hill’s Parker Garrison (40) attempts a sack on Maiden Blue Devils’ quarterback, Ethan Rhodes (12) during their encounter on Friday, September 6. (File photo by Brian Hendrix)Bunker Hill quarterback Carson Elder (6) has led the charge for his Bears in 2019. (File photo by Brian Hendrix)
Cody Dalton
O-N-E Contributor

One of the biggest challenges any high school football coach can face is changing the mindset of a program with a history of losing, but Patrick Clark embraces that role.

“I’ve always been an underdog type guy,” he said. “I like challenges. I like struggle. There’s a completely different feeling when you’re expected to go 9-2 and you go 9-2 versus a team that no one is expecting to do anything. You see the kids develop, earn it and believe in themselves. That’s the type of program I wanted to be a part of and get us into relevance.”

Now, the second-year Bunker Hill football coach has the Bears (5-5, 4-2) believing and in position to finish in second place in the Northwestern Foothills 2A conference with a win Friday against West Caldwell (1-9, 1-5) on “Senior Night.”

Clark’s first season as head football coach last fall netted the Bears two wins — equaling the previous two season’s combined win total.

Continuing to work hard during the offseason, Clark and his coaching staff started to see growth and improvement from their Bunker Hill football players as well as continuing to become familiar with one another.

“I think what you’re seeing is a group of young men who had a great year in the weight room and a group of coaches that have been together for a year and understand each other a little bit,” Clark said. “Everyone is working together across the board. When those things are in place, striving for that ultimate goal becomes easier.”

Bunker Hill entered the 2019 campaign with high hopes for its prep football season, but three-straight losses to open the fall against county rivals Newton-Conover, St. Stephens and Maiden left a sour taste in the mouths of the Bears’ coaches and players.

“We were all waiting for the pieces to fall into place, but we knew it was coming,” said Bears senior linebacker and running back Parker Garrison. “The Newton game put us behind and we felt down, but we looked at it as a wake up call. We weren’t as good as we thought we were.”

A solid week of practice following those three games set the stage for Bunker Hill’s first win of the season against rival Bandys on Sept. 13 — the Bears’ first victory against the Trojans since 2016.

“We had a great week of practice heading against Bandys,” said Bunker Hill sophomore quarterback Carson Elder. “We felt confident coming into the game against Hibriten, but it just didn’t work out in our favor. We built off it and kept the momentum going. We went uphill from there.”

Even in defeat the following week at home against Hibriten, the Bears continued to carry positive momentum, which led to them reeling off four-straight wins against Foard, Draughn, East Burke and West Iredell — the first time Bunker Hill had won four games in a row since the 2013 season.

Senior kicker Matt Garcia, who made a 23-yard field goal as time expired to help lift Bunker Hill to one of those wins against Foard, believes most of the Bears success has come from getting rid of selfishness.

“I feel like this is the year that we stopped having ‘me’ and started having ‘we,’” Garcia said. “We started to bond over the summer lifting. You embrace the hard things together because you are all pushing for the same goal. We’ve gotten closer this year.”

Aaron Bryant, whose late-game sack helped Bunker Hill win 17-13 against West Iredell on Oct. 25, said he and his teammates have used the negative stigma behind their team to their advantage.

“There is definitely a chip on the shoulder,” he said. “Everybody thinks you suck. You want to have that chip on your shoulder and prove everybody wrong.”

The Bears have also thrived in the tight games — playing in five contests this fall that have been decided by four points or fewer. It’s a trait Clark admires about his group.

“When we sense urgency, we perform well offensively and defensively,” he said. “We just have to be able to maintain urgency for 48 minutes. That’s part of that process. Our opponent is over there fighting for everything that they’ve got. We’ve got to match the energy and go above it.”

A difficult 36-35 double overtime loss to Patton last week snapped the Bears’ streak, which would have given them five victories in a row for the first time since 2011.

Despite the loss, though, Garrison and his teammates have remained positive this week heading into an important regular-season finale.

“Everyone is fired up and ready to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013,” he said. “I think everyone is ready to change the culture around and put Bunker Hill on the map. We’re tired of being made fun of, and it’s finally starting to show.”