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This will be the final season that Vance High School’s athletic teams will promote the name of a slave owner.
But before the football team morphs from the Vance Cougars to the Chambers Cougars in July, it first wants to win one more state championship under its old name.
The team is calling this quest #TheLastVance. The Cougars wore that slogan on their helmets Friday night as they pounded Mallard Creek, 27-7, in both teams’ season opener on a rainy, frigid February evening.
Although the setting was odd, the outcome wasn’t a great surprise. “We dominated like I thought we would,” Vance coach Glenwood Ferebee said.
Vance was ranked No. 1 in The Observer’s preseason Sweet 16 and is coming off a state championship, albeit a title it won 14 months earlier in pre-COVID times. Mallard Creek, ranked No. 7 in that first poll, is a major rival of Vance’s. The two schools sit only five miles apart in north Charlotte; they’re like Duke-North Carolina but jammed closer together.
As for that name change — that’s a little more complicated than Vance just winning another football game. Right now Vance’s football players, who are largely African-American, are still playing with a capital “V” on their helmets that symbolizes the surname of a slave owner.
The school was originally named for Zebulon B. Vance, who was a Confederate military captain and later a senator and the governor of North Carolina in the 1800s. Vance owned slaves and, after the Civil War, continued to attempt to keep Black citizens from voting.
In October, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board voted unanimously to change the school’s name to Julius L. Chambers High School. Chambers was a civil rights icon and an attorney whose legal work led to the desegregation of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the 1970s.
Many students at the school at first didn’t know who Zebulon Vance was or that he owned slaves, which makes sense to me. I never knew or much cared who my high school was named for, either. Maybe this happened to you, too: You just adopt whatever name you’re stuck with in high school and take pride in it, right?
That’s what the Vance football team did when it earned its first-ever state football championship in 2019, winning five straight road playoff games on the strength of a ridiculously good defense. But then 2020 happened, and as the world changed, there came an overdue reckoning about the Vance name.
“Once our kids understood, they embraced the name change,” Ferebee said.
First, though, the Cougars are playing the spring 2021 season under the old name. Vance quarterback Austin Grier, a senior who said he has committed to play in the Ivy League at Columbia, explained it well after the game.
“We know who Vance was,” Grier said, “but we tried to take that name and make it our own. ‘The Last Vance’ thing is about the fact that this is the last season we will ever play under the Vance name…. We want to be the last team to ever say we won a state championship for Vance.”
That may happen. Ferebee’s team is younger than the one that won the 2019 state title, but it has some great talent like sophomore running back Daylan Smothers. He scored twice Friday night, both from five yards out. Grier is a fine high school quarterback and looked like it. The defense shut Mallard Creek out for the first 56 minutes.
“We just had to get the jitters out,” said Smothers, who just turned 16 and is a star in the making. He had 162 rushing yards against Mallard Creek. Do scouts know about him?
“Oh, they’ll know about him now,” Ferebee said.
Both teams wore masks under their helmets while playing, as mandated by the N.C. High School Association. That was one of many strange parts of one of the oddest high school football atmospheres I’ve ever witnessed in person.
First of all: A high school football opener on Feb. 26th?! That’s just weird. But it’s what the public schools decided to do, and the young men are just happy not to lose the season entirely. But this was a cold, rainy night that felt about a million miles away from the crisp October Friday evenings everyone rhapsodizes about when they think of high school football. The Vance team smartly had a tent and portable heaters set up on its sideline, and the players warmed their hands between series like they were at a campfire.
The game was also played in front of only 100 fans due to COVID-19 regulations, in a 3,950-seat, artificial turf stadium at Mallard Creek that would have otherwise been packed.
Kudos to Mallard Creek’s cheerleaders, incidentally, who stood out in that rain and performed in ponchos for those 100 fans for the whole game.
This was a huge game for both teams. These players know each other, having often attended both the same middle schools and the same churches. Said Vance athletic director Carlos Richardson: “We literally have a couple of streets where if you live on one side you may go to Vance and on the other to Mallard Creek. We are very intertwined.”
Richardson said that the slogan of #TheLastVance wasn’t just about football but had also been adopted by all the school’s athletic teams for 2020-21.
“It’s a play on the title of the Michael Jordan documentary,” he said, referring to “The Last Dance” that followed Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. “We just wanted to give the kids some more school pride.”
So #TheLastVance will continue for a few more months. It feels like the sort of story that may draw national attention, particularly if Vance goes undefeated in this final season before that big “V” on the helmets is replaced by a big “C.”
And that’s Ferebee’s goal. The coach told his players after the game that they needed to go “1-0 every week for 11 straight weeks,” referring to this truncated seven-game regular season, followed by four playoff games.
Win all those, and #TheLastVance will end with an 11-0 record and a second straight state championship.
Win all those and what Grier, the team’s quarterback, said will indeed come true.
“The Vance name isn’t really positive,” Grier said. “But we will take it and make it positive. For us.”