Coaching friends meet when Titans, Wildcats clash

by Denny Seitz

When Hopewell faces Garinger in the first round of the Class 4AA state playoffs this week, Titans coach Chris Rust (above) will also be taking on an old friend: Garinger coach Lin Fisher.

When Lin Fisher decided after working for 10 years at Bank of America that his dream was to be a coach and teacher, the first person he sought for advice was his old defensive coordinator at North Mecklenburg High, Chris Rust.

Fisher’s life path led him to Garinger High, where he served as the linebackers coach until the opening week of this season. It was then that he was thrust into the interim head-coaching job for the Wildcats when then-head coach Terry Liggin resigned.

“I went from calling (Rust) once every couple of weeks to calling him a couple times a week,” said Fisher, whose Wildcats became one of the biggest success stories of the 2010 season, going 7-4 and earning a home playoff game for the first time since the 1980s.

The opponent?

The 7-4 Hopewell Titans and coach Chris Rust.

The teams will meet in a Class 4AA first-round game on Friday, Nov. 12, at 7:30 p.m.

“With all the adversity we’ve dealt with this year, the last thing I wanted was to have to play my old coach in the first round of the playoffs,” Fisher said.
Of course, for a school that hasn’t hosted or won a playoff game since the 1980s, Fisher won’t be complaining too loudly.

The Wildcats have won four of their past five games leading into Friday night’s showdown. If the storybook season for Garinger is to continue, the pieces are in place.

Hopewell will certainly have plenty to say about Friday’s outcome though. The Titans raced to a 6-1 record to start this season, then came up short in a rugged stretch of games that included Mallard Creek (11-0), Vance (8-3) and Mooresville (8-3).

Last week, Hopewell got back on track with a 33-28 win against North Meck.

Both coaches say Friday’s game will be the start of a brand new season. And both coaches say opportunistic defenses could hold the key.

For Garinger, senior defensive end Quinton Nelson has made his first year of varsity football a memorable one, notching 21 sacks and serving as the catalyst for the Wildcats. Defensive back John Brockington has been the playmaker in the secondary.

Nelson and Brockington will contend with Hopewell quarterback Cole Blythe (1,332 passing yards, nine TDs) and try to contain the running back duo of Dondre Lewis-Freeman (945 rushing yards) and Denzel Heath (423 rushing yards).

When Garinger has the ball, if Brockington isn’t catching passes from quarterback Ronnie Stinson, Stinson likely will be running the ball. The talented senior has passed for 1,162 yards and 13 touchdowns and run for a a team-high 492 yards and nine scores. Eight of the touchdown tosses have gone to Brockington.

“Whoever makes the fewest mistakes has a good chance of winning,” Rust said.

The Titans’ coach said several players have stepped up as leaders this week. He also said the win against North Meck – even if it might not have been pretty, was very important.

“We never quit,” Rust said. “We kept on going, working.”

As for Friday’s game, the teams won’t exactly be mirrors of one another, but Fisher says many of his decisions and strategies this season have come after consulting his former coach.

“We have similar philosophies,” said Fisher, who was the middle linebacker on the 1993 North Meck team that went 12-2 and lost in the state semifinals. “But for me, a lot of my dealing with coach Rust was like, ‘How do I deal with this? Or how do I deal with that? He helped me a lot.”

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