Setting Bars: How the ’16 Averett team righted the program’s ship
When Adams took the reins four years ago, he and his staff set expectations of the team as soon as they arrived on campus …
Averett University Athletics employees woke up Sept. 3, 2016, feeling a little rough.
A summer’s worth of consecutive double-digit workdays, sleepless nights and time spent away from family and loved ones, had left them feeling a little burned out. Plus, they knew soon, hundreds of cars (not all containing patient drivers)would need ushering in, reserved parking and tailgating spots would need finding, tickets would need taking, bags would need searching, AU swag and concessions would need selling, on-field promotions would need executing, ankles and helmets would need taping, plays would need calling and stats would need keeping.
Why the fuss?
Averett football is hours away from opening its 2016 season with its first game inside the friendly confines of Frank R. Campbell Stadium — Averett’s new state-of-the-art, multi-purpose athletics facility named after the university’s 33rd president and Godfather of Averett football.
The night would become the culmination of a two-year, two-phase plan that brought a synthetic turf playing surface (Daly Field), stadium lighting, three-story press box with concessions, president’s suite and coaches boxes and bleacher seating for 1,200-plus.
“They told me in the interview process they were going to put turf down and lights down in 2014 and soon after, start construction on the stadium and I was privileged enough to sit here in my office and watch it come to pass,” recalled Cleive Adams, Averett football head coach.
“It’s funny in the first year, we watched them break ground on the actual turf and it took the entire summer to get it down and we were right up to the opener in that phase and two years later, we broke ground on the actual stadium project and we were midnight putting the finishing touches on the lights and everything else to be ready for the first game.”
Drew Wilson, Averett director of athletics communications, has covered the program since its near infancy either at Averett or as a sports writer/editor for the Danville Register & Bee. For him, the stadium’s opening marked the program’s entrance into maturity.
“I think the biggest thing was it brought a sense of excitement and atmosphere to game days,” Wilson said. “In the infancy of the program, it was about getting the team out on the field and getting the program started. There was obviously a field and a press box and some stands, but it didn’t have that college football feel necessarily that it does now.”
“I think it was the next step in helping Averett and the football program get to the next level and make that jump and solidify itself as a solid program in the region and conference.”
Solidify is a perfect word to use in describing Averett’s 2016 season. The Cougars started the season with a stadium-opening, statement win over Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) and region powerhouse Hampden-Sydney College and concluded with a win over USA South Conference opponent Methodist University that gave Averett its first non-losing season since 2009.
“I think you if you look at the history over the program once coach [Adams] took over, you could kind of see things were continuing to grow and ever since he’s taken over, we’ve kind of taken that next step each year to try to get back to the top of the conference,” said Wilson. “I knew our team heading into that season had the pieces in place to be successful.”
“I think it showed the growth of the program and that coach [Adams] and his staff’s philosophies of what they preach day-in, day-out, and that mindset within the team to keep fighting and battling and trusting in what they’re doing and things will pay off.”
The Cougars had their mantra tested in their home opener against Hampden-Sydney as they took on the Tigers in the official opening of Frank R. Campbell.
HAMPDEN-SYDNEY appeared to be on its way to playing spoiler, as it jumped out to an early two-score lead, thanks to Matt DeMassi’s 99-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff and Owen Costello’s 31-yard touchdown reception on a pass from Edgar Moore.
“The game started off the wrong way,” Adams said, laughing. “They return the kick for a touchdown, we go three-and-out and they score and it’s 14–0 and I’m sure everyone from the outside looking in was like, ‘Here we go. Sydney is a high-profile program in Virginia/North Carolina small college football, Averett can’t hang, the same old hat.’”
“But there was the feeling on the sideline that ‘Okay, we just gave them 14 points and now it’s time for us to start playing.’ The kids woke up. They adapted.”
Myles Bennett’s 17-yard touchdown reception from quarterback Kelly Hall cut the Cougars’ deficit to seven with 7:29 left in the first quarter and Sean Bowman’s 1-yard run at the start of the second completed a 14-point Averett swing, helping the Cougars tie the game. The two sides deadlocked from there, and both went into the break tied at 14-all.
Averett wasted little time establishing second-half momentum, stringing together a four-play, 75-yard scoring drive, capped by Travis Jones’ 12-yard run, that gave the Cougars their first lead of the game with just over 13 minutes remaining in the period. Hall finished off another 14-point swing with his 9-yard touchdown run and the Cougars took a 28–14 lead heading into the final period.
Hall’s second touchdown pass, a 27-yard strike to Terrance Owens II, pushed Averett’s advantage to 35–21 with 10:28 remaining. The Tigers tried to stage a comeback, pulling back within a score on Alec Cobb’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Carter Cunningham. However, Cole Westberry’s 23-yard field goal with under four minutes left, gave the Cougars 38–28 advantage that effectively iced the game.
“You hear about coaches talking about team’s finding a way to win, understanding how to win, and my earlier teams couldn’t have overcome a 14–0 deficit against a team like that. But we had clearly started turning the corner in our thought process and what we knew we could do and we believed in ourselves,” Adams said.
“You measure yourself against the best in the region and Hampden-Sydney is one of the best small college football program’s in the region for the past 10 years and you want to be mentioned in the same breath and to do that, you have to line up and play with them and you have to able to hold your own and that’s something we were able to do that year.”
Averett’s harder-than-the-rest non-conference schedule continued the following week as the Cougars made the trip to Ashland, Virginia, to play another tough ODAC opponent in Randolph-Macon College — a game that ended in a 44–10 Averett loss.
The Cougars’ schedule didn’t get any easier the following week as it hosted ODAC stalwart Guilford College into Frank R. Campbell for the stadium’s dedication game …
GUILFORD ENTERED the game receiving national votes in the D3Football.com poll. Averett entered the game with a bit of a chip on its shoulder after having lost in blowouts to the Quakers the previous two seasons.
Bowman’s 2-yard touchdown gave the Cougars a 21–20 edge over Guilford with 2:02 left in the third quarter. Guilford answered back, though, striking for three points on Erick Fuentes’ 24-yard field goal. The Quakers’ defense forced the Cougars into a three-and-out on their following drive and Guilford’s offense repaid the favor with a seven-play, 57-yard drive that gave the Quakers a 30–21 lead with under six minutes to play.
Averett fought back and pulled within two on Owens’ 21-yard touchdown catch with over three minutes left to play. Guilford’s offense was able to pick up a pair of first downs on its following drive to ice the game.
Michael Barbour started things on the right foot as he hauled in an 18-yard pass from Hall that gave Averett a 7–0 lead with 9:23 left in the first quarter. The Quakers struck back, knotting the game on a 14-yard touchdown toss with 12:34 remaining in the half. Hall wasn’t done though as he found Bennett for a 13-yard score that gave the Cougars a 14–7 lead heading into the break.
At halftime, the Cougars officially dedicated the newly built Frank R. Campbell.
“We had a chance to win and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, when you feel like you had a chance to win the game, it hurts,” Adams said. “We felt like it was an awesome opportunity to send a message to the region about the quality of football being played here in Danville so it was an opportunity missed.”
“You don’t deal in moral victories but as a staff, when you take a team like that to the wire, you know you’re stumbling across something. At the time, I knew we had recruited well. We had retained. We had put those guys in a position to be competitive on Saturday afternoon and we knew that’s what it came down to.”
Averett proved it the following week in its road-game against USA South Conference foe LaGrange College two weeks later …
THERE HAVE been a few things to happen over the years between Averett and LaGrange that have allowed a rivalry to be born. Some words have been said, some feelings have been hurt.
Therefore, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the 2016 edition of the game between the Cougars and Panthers wound up becoming a duel similar to the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.
“There had been some seeds planted in previous years that had sort of helped make that a rivalry game,” Wilson said. “Both teams obviously battling for dominance in the conference and obviously that was in the middle of the season and at the start of the conference schedule. Obviously, very important games for both teams. It was a long trip for Averett to get down there and you knew it was going to be a tough one because both teams are extremely talented.”
Fans of defensive football were left disappointed as the two teams combined for 96 points in regulation and entered overtime tied at 48–48.
Averett won the toss and elected to start overtime with the ball. The decision worked out for the Cougars as Bowman capped a four-play, 25-yard drive with a 1-yard run that gave Averett a 55–48 lead and put LaGrange’s back against the wall. The Panthers knew what they had to do though and put together a two-play scoring drive capped by Connor Blair’s 25-yard touchdown pass that knotted the score at 55–55.
LaGrange got the ball right back and didn’t waste possession, taking a 62–55 lead when Blair found Ervens Oge for a 30-yard touchdown pass. With Averett needing a score to stay alive, Bowman capped off a five-play drive with a 12-yard reception that re-tied the score.
Things got weird from there. The Cougars came up short on a 42-yard field goal attempt, giving the Panthers a chance to seal the game with just a field goal. LaGrange managed to push Averett’s defense to its own 3-yard line, but Blair floated a pass that the Cougars’ Seth Brendle snagged for an interception in the end zone.
The Panthers had another chance to seal the game on the ensuing possession, but on third-and-16, Blair offered up a pass that Averett’s Octavius Ross picked off at the Cougars’ 3-yard line. That was all the opportunity Averett needed as Westberry drilled a 36-yard field goal to cap the Cougars’ wild 65–62 win.
“That was a doozy and as a long-time defensive guy, it wasn’t very fun because I pride myself in understanding the defensive side of the ball but we just couldn’t get out of our own way,” said Adams. “But we were also able to score so for the fans, it was a great ballgame but for the coaches, it was extremely nerve-wracking. I look back on that game though and we found a way to win it.”
“It really showed the team growth of the team and how they were understanding how to win a game. Not folding the tent. Not panicking but finding a way to win the game and I’ll never forget when that field goal went through and the guys stormed the field and all that stuff, we talked about after the game how we were going to get our Chick-fil-A, get on the bus and enjoy the ride back to Virginia.”
Wilson, along with his wife Heather, were putting their daughter Caroline to the bed as the action was unfolding. Wilson recalls with a laugh sitting on the edge of his seat, more like his floor, watching the game on his phone.
“I remember that night following the game on my phone in our nursery room, putting Caroline to bed and I remember following that game, looking at the live stats, trying to watch the video and it just kept going and going and going,” Wilson said. “And even though I was sitting on the floor, I was still sitting on the edge of my seat, trying to follow it and my heart was racing as the plays happened and they ended up getting the win.”
“The interception by [Brendle] in the end zone that helped clinch it. You think that’s going to be the drive all they have to do is score and we get the pick and then we kicked the field goal that was the difference. I remember the excitement of both of those plays and really kind of in my mind, that’s one of those memories you’ll always remember where you were at when those insane games happen.”
AVERETT BROKE ground on Frank R. Campbell on Oct. 24, 2015, after a game against USA South stalwart Maryville College, that ended with the Cougars on the wrong end of a 31–26 score line.
Averett came into the game looking for a little revenge over Maryville but only experienced déjà vu.
The Cougars entered the fourth quarter facing a 25-point deficit, but pieced together a furious rally, scoring 20 unanswered points in the fourth. Owens’ 40-yard touchdown reception jumpstarted the party and Bowman’s 7-yard touchdown run made it a 31–20 game with 9:59 remaining.
Don Warren recovered a Maryville fumble, giving Averett the ball on the Scots’ 10-yard line with under 10 minutes left in the game. Minutes later, Hall found Owens for a 9-yard touchdown pass that made it a 31–26 game with 7:44 left in the game. The Cougars got the ball back after forcing a Maryville punt, but the Scots’ Blake Anderson recorded a pick and Maryville ran out the clock to escape with another 31–26 victory.
“Once again, that game really showed the growth of our program,” Adams said. “They really had our number there in the first year but the 2015, 2016 games against [Maryville] let us know we could play with the best in the conference.”
THE COUGARS came into their Week 8 matchup against long-time rival Ferrum College with a 3–1 conference record and a chance to make a run at the regular-season title, but also without Hall, who was injured in Averett’s 38–34 victory over N.C. Wesleyan College the previous week.
Without it’s starting quarterback, the Cougars’ offense struggled and only managed a field goal in a 14–3 loss to the Panthers.
Eventual conference champion Huntingdon College into Frank R. Campbell and handed Averett a lopsided loss on Senior Day the following week.
“That was a bitter time for us in this program but once again, you stumble and you figure out a way to take a few steps forward,” Adams said. “They took a couple of pictures celebrating their win inside the Grant Center and that put a bad taste in our mouths as a program and it should have. Every failure is an opportunity to find success if you have that perspective and know if it’s not going to break you, it’s going to make you.”
Averett stayed true to Adams’ words and scored three unanswered touchdowns in the second half to conclude its season with a 28–14 win over conference opponent Methodist University on the road, leading the program to its first non-losing season since 2009.
WHEN ADAMS took the reins four years ago, he and his staff set expectations of the team as soon as they arrived on campus.
Drawing from 1 Corinthians 13: 11–12, Adams and his staff established the “Be A Man” motto or what the team refers to as “BAM” to teach their players the importance of having character on and off the field. The philosophy consists of seven principles coaches believe will make the players responsible and productive members of society.
“It’s the foundation of our football program,” Adams said. “It’s the principles that we live by, it’s what I want people to think about first when they think about Averett football. I want them to think about 1 Corinthians 13: 11–12, hashtag BAM, that’s the first thing I want them talking about.”
“I don’t want them to think about 8–2. I don’t want them to think about the uniform combinations. How good the quarterback or running back or DB’s are. When I first took this job, I knew what I wanted this program and what I wanted it to stand for in order for me to call it successful. And having a foundation of faith in this program is huge. It’s how my guys communicate with each other on a daily basis. If something’s happening in one guy’s life, our group chats are, ‘I’m praying for you bro, prayers going up,’ that’s the language we speak.”
The seven principles are: 1.) Having a strong foundation of faith. 2.) Giving back. 3.) Being gentlemen, respecting women. 4.) Being a great teammate. 5.) Competing in life. 6.) Outworking your competition. 7.) Graduating from Averett.
The Cougars’ on-field results from the past three seasons have proven Adams’ philosophy to be successful. In 2017, Averett posted an overall finish of 6–4, including a 5–2 mark in USA South play. Both marks represented the Cougars’ first winning season since 2009 and matched highest win totals since that period as well.
Averett doubled down the following season, recording a program-best 8–2 record and program-high 6–1 conference finish.
“I put a lot of stock in mentor leadership in this program,” Adams said. “We constantly throughout each semester, have 18–20 players who are responsible for a segment of the team. Every two captains have possibly 10 or 11 guys they’re responsible for every semester so mentor leadership has been huge in the turnaround of this program because the blind can’t lead the blind.”
“Somebody has to tell some of these younger guys, the more unexperienced guys how to act and what the expectation is and not only coming from a coaching staff. Peer pressure is the best kind of pressure when it’s positive.”
Former Averett defensive end and captain Kenneth “KJ” Covington said it the best after the Cougars’ 54–0 win over Greensboro College — the largest margin of victory in program history — that concluded the 2017 season and lifted Averett to its first winning season in eight years:
“Averett’s back, baby. Averett’s back.”