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Independence’s ‘road warriors’ will try to beat Weddington, advance to state final

After starting its season 1-2, Independence is back in the NC High School Athletic Association’s regional championship game for the first time since 2009.

“It is really exciting,” said Independence coach DJ McFadden, whose team will play at Weddington on Friday night. “My kids just kept showing up to work. We got off to that slow start and they just kept working. We had some things we wanted to correct and had some guys getting comfortable in the system, mainly on the offense.”

How did the Patriots pull this off?

They opened the season ranked among the top five 4A teams in North Carolina, but fell to Mallard Creek, 28-14, at Memorial Stadium in Charlotte on Aug. 17. Independence then beat Hickory Ridge 75-49 the following week, but lost a close game at 3A power West Charlotte, 21-20, in early September.

McFadden revealed after the regular season that starting quarterback Justin Little had battling through injuries early in the year. McFadden said Little was finally fully healthy on Sept. 8, when Independence started a six-game win streak by beating South Mecklenburg, 45-0, in its fourth game of the year. On Sept. 22, the Patriots won, 31-10, at Charlotte Catholic, one of the toughest places to play as a visiting team in North Carolina.

“By the time we hit the Charlotte Catholic game, we were healthy,” McFadden said. “Guys on the offensive side of the ball really stepped up and made plays. Ever since that, we’ve been rolling.”

Independence extended its win streak to six games before falling to Butler, 35-23, on Oct. 27. At the time, McFadden said he felt his team had played close with a legitimate 4A state title contender, and he wasn’t worried about drawing a lower postseason seed.

Led by its defense, Independence has won four straight road games in the playoffs: 35-0 over Lake Norman, 34-28 over East Forsyth, 34-14 over Watauga, and, a week ago, 10-7 over Butler.

“Those guys (on defense) have been so steady for us all year long,” McFadden said. “We’ve got some dudes on that side of the ball. I think it starts with our leader Dallas Brandon. He is our sophomore (middle) linebacker. He has been the leader of the defense since day one. Of course, everyone knows about Quentin Reddish. He has been solid for us and his younger brother Nick Reddish is turning into a superstar of his own. I can go on down the line. We’ve really got some dogs on that side and we’re looking for another peak performance on Friday night against Weddington.”

On offense, Little has thrown for 2,522 yards and 28 touchdowns, completing nearly 70 percent of his passes. But the Patriots’ breakout star has been sophomore Jayden Jones, who is averaging nearly 11 yards per carry. Jones didn’t play in three games this season, mainly because McFadden wanted to rest him for the playoffs. But in 11 games, he’s rushed for 1,818 yards and 19 touchdowns. Jones ranks 26th among all NC running backs in yardage gained and is second among all sophomores.

“Jayden is a great running back,” McFadden said. “Obviously the school has been known for their quarterbacks but even back then we had a stable of running backs to come to this place and put up big numbers. I think (Jones) is one of the best running backs to come through here. He is closing in on 2,000 yards this year even though he missed three games. Jayden is special and we are making sure he stays level-headed, stays humble and keeps working and doing the things he needs to do so at the end he can choose where wants to go to school. But, he is our heart and soul right now.”

McFadden said this year’s playoff run has brought some excitement to a school that once dominated NC football, winning seven straight state titles from 2000-06.

“Our fans have been great all year,” McFadden said. “No matter where we’ve gone, they have traveled with us. They came up to Watauga and supported us there, too. Since we’ve been on this run I have had alumni from the 70s and 80s that have come out to games and practices. So, it is exciting. We aren’t worried about the logistics of where we have to go. It is an us against the world mentality.”

McFadden said that will be the case again Friday, when the Patriots play Weddington, the No. 1 overall playoff seed in the West.

“We are excited to go into another hostile environment,” he said. “Weddington is on their long home winning streak. I heard some opponents say it has been a while since they lost in that place. So, we’ve got our hands full. But, we are up for the challenge. We are excited to keep working and play again.”