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North community enjoys ride through the playoffs

North Davidson football team members are greeted by fans as the team enters the field for their playoff game last Friday night against Mount Tabor. (Photo by Donnie Roberts/The Dispatch)

WELCOME | Riding through Welcome on Old Hwy. 52 Tuesday morning, the marquee at McDonald’s doesn’t advertise ham and egg biscuits on special, or the new CBO burger. Its message is simple: Home of the Black Knights.

One door down, at Bojangles, North Davidson coaching legend Pete Jones is about to leave from his morning breakfast and coffee run. But, when stopped, he has time to talk about the same thing most everybody else in Welcome is talking about these days — North football.

The Black Knights are 14-0, and face Porter Ridge in the 4-A state semifinals at Palmer Field on Friday. With a win there, they will play at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill next Friday for their first North Carolina High School Athletic Association.

That name, Palmer, stirs up memories of the first glory days in the school’s history. Don Palmer was the first coach in school history. He made his mark with the Black Knights right away. They won the Western North Carolina Activities Association championship in 1966, then tied Shelby in the title game in 1975.

Jones explained why there was no NCHSAA title in those days. Dissatisfied with the state association, a group of schools from Thomasville and Asheboro west broke off from the organization and formed their own group. Every school fell into the same classification; there was no 2-A, 3-A, etc. Everyone played at the same level. Palmer stepped down after going 10-2 in the 1976-77 season, then turned over the reins to Steve Hinkle.

Palmer established a tradition, and built a nice stable of coaches along the way. He met Jones at a summer camp at Tanglewood, and asked him to come coach at North. Jones went on to become the most successful basketball coach in the school’s history, and the new gym is named in his honor.

Flanked by a dozen or more retired buddies in booths at Bojangles on a Tuesday morning, Jones can only smile when he thinks about this year’s team and what it’s accomplished to this point. “When you have success, the community gets excited,” he said. “They’ve got to where they tailgate now.

“Back when I coached, you didn’t ever hear of tailgating in high school. Now, they start about 4 o’clock in the evening.”

Another big difference Jones noted since his time on the sideline is the size of the players. Shy Tuttle, the Knights’ sophomore defensive end, stands 6-foot-2, 290 pounds. Jones wheeled around in his booth to find Ronnie Sink, who played guard at North a few decades ago. He was 140 pounds; Jones said they called them “pulling guards” in those days. A 140-pounder would barely be big enough to make a varsity roster now.

While the crowds have grown as the unbeaten season has continued, Jones acknowledges how much the community supports the team no matter what. “North Davidson’s always had good crowds, even when we didn’t win,” he said. “We travel good, and a lot of times we’ll have more as the visitor than the home team does.”

Steve Hinkle played at North under Palmer, then went on to play baseball and football at Lenoir-Rhyne. He came back to coach at North — he was the head football coach for 14 years after Palmer’s 15-year stint at the helm. The Knights rejoined the NCHSAA about the time he came back, and Hinkle remembers his days in Welcome very fondly. “It’s just a good football community,” Hinkle said by phone Tuesday. “The area has always supported its athletic programs, not just football but all of them.

“You can tell that by the facilities, which basically the community has provided.”

Jones echoed those sentiments. Though the land was bought by the county school system, the school itself had to put the athletic complex together. That took plenty of work, time, and, of course, money.

“The community took over,” Jones said. “The community and boosters club cleared it, and built all those fields. Two soccer fields, baseball, they did it all. The county gave the land, but we had to earn the money, and beg, borrow and steal. And people did the work.”

Bill Butts served as the head coach at North for three years, but he enjoyed the most recent run that is comparable to this season. In 1999, the Knights went 11-0 in the regular season but were stunned in the first round of the state playoffs.

Butts, who has a son at North Davidson High School and another at North Middle, has enjoyed the ride as a fan and a former Black Knight coach. “Coach (Mark) Holcomb and his staff have done a tremendous job,” Butts said. “I’ve seen them play a few times, and it’s the best football team I can remember up there, and there’s been some good ones.”

Butts, like Jones, has enjoyed watching the community come together on this magical ride. “It’s fantastic, and it should be,” he added. “It’s exciting for the fans, and mainly the kids are excited about what’s going on. It’s the most fired-up, exciting; signs all over the place up here in Welcome. It’s a tight community anyway, and this just adds to it.

Holcomb, since returning to coaching four years ago, had been unable to escape the first round of the postseason despite a steady climb up the ranks in the Central Piedmont Conference.

But now, he has had the privilege of strolling the sidelines of Palmer Field, named for a legend that preceded him by nearly 50 years, throughout the playoffs. Thanks to South Caldwell’s upset loss in the second round of the 4-A playoffs, North locked up home field advantage. If the Knights win this Friday, next Friday’s trip to Chapel Hill will be the first time they have had to board a bus since the regular-season finale at Davie County.

That has meant the world to Holcomb, who grew up in Arcadia and graduated from North in 1988. “Everybody here wants to be here on a Friday night,” Holcomb said. “That’s from the 85-year-old man to the 7-year-old kid. They want to be here on Friday nights.

“We are truly a dying breed. Where on Friday nights, the sidewalks are rolled up, and everybody comes to support their kids.”

Jones, for one, believes the ride will keep going for one more week. He likes the advantage North gains with Chase Mitchell’s punting and Spencer Landfried’s kicking.

“Usually, when you get this far in the playoffs, everybody’s good,” Jones said. “Usually, the difference is your kicking game. And we’ve got probably the best kicking game … I haven’t seen everybody in the state, but I can’t see another team having a kicking game like ours.

“We punt the ball well, got us out of a hole the other night. And the field goal kicker, he kicked it further than anybody we’ve had, 51-yarder. And he kicks it in the end zone, they don’t get to run the kickoffs back. That’s a plus.”

Having thousands of fans cheering you on is a plus, too. There will certainly be a large crowd at Palmer Field this Friday, hoping for one more home win.

Jason Queen can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 220 or