By Pete Zamplas- Christ School Greenies with star quarterback Navy Shuler, two star receivers, an emerging back and a huge lineman trio tuned up well by out-playing fast Hendersonville Bearcats Aug. 16 in the final week of scrimmages.
The Greenies, who open Aug. 30 at home, look to do one better than 2018 when they reached the state title game — but fell to Charlotte Christian. That was the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association, in Division I.
The new Christ School varsity head football coach is Nick Luhm, the defensive coordinator for the past five seasons. He took over in early July for Tommy Langford, who moved up to help coach UNC-Charlotte.
Half of Greenies starters return from the 10-2 squad.
Most notable is the passing of Navy Shuler to Aydan White and Cade Mintz. Navy sinks opponents with pinpoint passing accuracy and velocity that harkens to his famous father Heath Shuler. Heath is the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. Heath’s brother Benjie, who caught many of Heath’s Swain passes, is also a volunteer Greenies assistant coach.
Navy Shuler excelled in 2018, his breakout season. He set a mark as the first junior in WNC to throw for more than 4,000 yards. (Reynolds’ Alex Flinn was 28 yards short of that threshold, in 2017.) Navy passed for 4,112 yards and 40 touchdowns, versus 11 interceptions.
About half of his aerial yardage and TDs were to those two star receivers, who are also back. Mintz, who came from Cherokee, caught 52 passes for 1,083 yards and nine scores. Fellow senior White, who is committed to N.C. State, tallied 1,049 yards and 11 TDs.
Navy Shuler is an extremely savvy, disciplined and patient pocket passer. His pinpoint accuracy is gaining accolades as even better than that of his strong-armed father. Heath eagerly and easily ran through defenses, in his day.
This distinction helps set Navy apart.
But Navy is also very mobile. He ran well when he took off versus HHS. But he mostly rolled out looking to pass first, and not to run. After all, someone named Navy is destined to be “fleet.” On one play he dangled the ball as tacklers approached, but in the next moment cradled it and set up to pass on the run.
In their final exhibition, the Greenies had a two-touchdown lead for much of the half-game versus HHS until the Bearcats scored late. This was among four scrimmages in a row, at East Henderson. That Bearcat varsity squad is its smallest in memory.
Humongous private magnet Christ School dwarfs many other foes, too. Star returning senior linemen are Will Buchanan (6-6, 295), Kade Chapman (6-5, 290) and Ian Adams (6-4, 290). They are college-sized. Yet they were mobile enough to stay with fast HHS tacklers, and fended them off with overpowering ease.
Tight end Charlie Browder is 6-foot-7 and 235 pounds. The junior caught balls above outstretched hands of Bearcats about a foot shorter than he is. Browder is fast enough that after a catch he zipped through the defense for a touchdown, down the right sideline.
Other tall targets include White at 6-2, 6-4 senior Eddie Willis Fleming and 6-3 junior Langston Long. Caden Mintz is a stocky 5-11 and 200. He is a very fast go-to receiver, who slices through defenses and the open field in a hurry.
There is a largely new batch of running backs, and they are bulky. Several weigh over 200 such as Pierce Hammonds (6-0, 215 soph.), Jasper Thomas (6-1, 217 sr.) and Kiki Alcime (6-0, 225 sr.).
Hammonds sure looked tremendous balancing power and speed versus HHS. Other backs include Davis Lindsey (6-0, 180 sr.), and Corey Taylor (5-10, 160 jr.).
Defensive leaders in the 4-3 base formation include middle linebacker Read Sunn (6-2, 225 sr.) and LB Jasper Thomas (6-1, 217 sr.), a transfer from West Henderson.
Thomas enjoys playing against HHS. Two years ago, he returned an interception 40 yards for a West score.
Public high schools in this area are typically not fond of Christ School, for bringing in transfers from their teams. A drawing card is a state rule that allows a student to gain an extra year of eligibility via transfer to a private school. A rising public school senior is classified instead as a junior for the Greenies, and gains an extra year of training.
Navy and his sister Island, Heath and Nikol Shuler’s children, grew up in Waynesville which is Tuscola territory. Christ School landed father and son, as coach and quarterback.
Navy is on schedule to graduate this December, then enroll at Appalachian State. He is listed at six feet and 195 pounds.
That is two inches shorter than Heath’s listed playing height, and at least 20 pounds lighter. Heath, now 47, was the local U.S. congressman in 2007-13. He was a moderate “Blue Dog” Democrat — a political species seemingly eclipsed by the party’s leftward trend.
Heath is the highest-drafted player in pro football from WNC. He was the third pick of the 1994 NFL draft.
The last time a Shuler quarterbacked against Hendersonville Bearcats was 1990, when Heath did so for Swain County. Thousands attended that 1A playoff showdown. Even people clad with far-away Franklin shirts jammed around fences.
Heath took Swain to three 1A state titles in a row (‘88-90). He ran and passed, punted, and returned phunts. Heath then starred for Tennessee Vols, and was the ’93 Heisman Trophy runner-up to Florida State QB Charlie Ward. Heath managed 22 starts in merely four NFL seasons, in an injury-shortened career that ended in New Orleans.
His rookie contract holdout with the Redskins set him behind fellow ’94 draftee Gus Frerotte, a lowly seventh-round pick who won and kept the starting gig. Frerotte might be tabbed a “butt-head.” That is since he notoriously injured his neck and knocked himself woozy in ’97, by foolishly head-butting a stadium wall to celebrate a score.
Christ School opens Oct. 30, 7 p.m, by hosting University Christian (Fla.). Key games are at Charlotte Latin then Providence Day. Right after that Charlotte Christian comes in, for a possible preview of a state title rematch.
The Greenies play at a premier 1AA public team, the Murphy Bulldogs, on Sept. 13. Perfect! Heath’s arch-arch-arch rival at Swain was Murphy.
All Greenies regular-season contests are on Fridays, except as usual the finale on a Saturday against local rival Asheville School. It is Oct. 26, on the Blues’ field.