Charlotte Catholic has played in eight state football championships and won four times since joining the N.C. High School Athletic Association in 1967. But questions about the school’s success have long dogged the program.
Charlotte Catholic is a private school playing in a league of public schools. It’s geographic boundaries, though reined in a few years ago, are still much broader than its rivals. Catholic, for example, has had players on its sports teams from Rock Hill, Davidson, Fort Mill and Huntersville.
When Catholic moved up to Class 4A in 2013, state officials said complaints from member schools decreased. But NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker told the Observer she expected complaints to return this fall as Catholic returned to the smaller 3A class.
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Catholic (3-0), No. 3 in the Charlotte Observer Sweet 16 football poll, plays host to 4A Ardrey Kell Friday. The Cougars will begin play in their new 3A conference in two weeks.
And, like years previous, the issue of geographic boundary remains. Does that flexibility give Charlotte Catholic an advantage?
“I can see where people might say that,” Charlotte Catholic football coach Mike Brodowicz said. “People see our boundary is a 25-mile radius around the school and (other schools) have a certain geographic area. I agree with that. But it’s $12,000 per year to go here. There’s no scholarships. That’s what our country is made of, choices.
“We abide by the state regulations. We will do whatever they tell us to do. But this conversation will never end as long as we’re in the system and winning.”
There are four Catholic schools in the NCHSAA -- Charlotte Catholic, Christ The King in Huntersville, Cardinal Gibbons in Raleigh and Bishop McGuinness in Kernersville, near Winston-Salem. Since 2005, those four schools have combined to win more than 100 state championships. Unlike most other public schools in the association, students living within a 25-mile radius might be eligible to play sports at Catholic schools.
Of the four, however, Charlotte Catholic is the only one to win state championships in the state’s two biggest sports -- boys’ basketball and football. During the 2015-16 school year, the Cougars won both just a few months apart.
It’s this type of success that has twice led groups to call for Catholic’s removal from the NCHSAA.
The first was in 1986. By then, Catholic had gone 75-16-1 against teams from the Union County-based Rocky River 2A conference in football over the previous 13 years. By November 1985, seven teams in the nine-team league asked the NCHSAA to remove Catholic over concerns with geographic boundaries. In May 1986, a three-fourths majority of schools would have to vote Catholic out; 54 percent voted for change, 46 percent were against.
In the spring of 2012, the issue returned, when a group of Rowan schools led an effort to force out the Catholic schools. Charlotte Catholic at the time was in the midst of winning 14 straight girls’ swimming state titles. Bishop McGuinness was in the middle of winning nine straight girls’ basketball state titles. And Cardinal Gibbons had just beaten Catholic to win its second straight boys’ soccer state title.
The parochial schools answered calls for their removal by reminding people that although there were technically no geographic limits for them, they have additional eligibility requirements, including students having to sit out one year of athletic eligibility if they transfer from an NCHSAA school.
“To me, it is a question of boundaries,” then-Salisbury High football coach Joe Pinyan said in 2012. “Our students come from a specific area. Theirs do not. Their players can come from anywhere. It is not a level playing field.”
Again, a vote was held. It didn’t receive the necessary 75 percent of the NCHSAA's full membership of 390 schools, or 293 votes, to oust the Catholic schools. Of the 285 votes cast, a majority (234) was in favor of removing the schools, while 51 voted to allow them to remain. Another 105 schools - more than a quarter of the membership - did not vote.
The Observer spoke with about a dozen 3A coaches and athletics directors about Catholic’s return this fall. Only one, Pinyan, was willing to go on the record. But all expressed concern, with many sharing Pinyon’s opinion that the charter schools and Catholic schools should have a separate playoff system.
“I have no problem with (Charlotte Catholic) in particular,” said Pinyon, now coach at Carson High in China Grove. “I think their players play hard and their coaches do a great job. The thing that upsets me is they’re not playing by the same rules that everybody else plays by.”
Pinyon said he would not try to organize another vote because he didn’t think he could win.
“Some schools are too far east and west, so they don’t participate” in the vote, Pinyon said. “But I think the body spoke when it was an overwhelming vote (234 cast against among 285 total) the last time to not allow them to be in. For that reason you have to be discouraged.
“I don’t think it’s fair they play (with a large boundary). Why are we keeping the Charlotte Latins and Country Days out of the association if we allow Charlotte Catholic to play?...I’m not bitter. I just wish we all played by the same rules.”
After the 2012 vote, Tucker said last winter that the association formed a 20-person committee to delve into the issue of Catholic and charter schools -- smaller public schools that were popping up all over the state with no geographic boundaries and having the kind of instant athletic success Pinyon is concerned about. The committee ultimately added the 25-mile radius for those schools as a geographic boundary.
“People will always say, ‘I don’t know if Catholic schools recruit or not,’ ” Tucker said. “By nature, if I’m a Catholic and my parents want me to have a Catholic education, I’ll go to whichever Catholic school is closest to me. So I think their area to draw from is really the Catholic population.
“If I’m not a Catholic and I want to go school there, several things still kick in. Look at the amount of money I’ve got to pay. It is a private education.”
Tucker said she does not believe Catholic recruits. That’s a sentiment shared by Davidson men’s basketball coach Bob McKillop, whose sons -- Matt and Brendan -- attended Charlotte Catholic and starred on Cougars basketball teams.
“I recruited them, they didn’t recruit me,” Bob McKillop said of Charlotte Catholic. “Both of our boys had to sacrifice tremendously, a one-hour drive every day each way. It taught them time management, discipline, spiritual values and, on top of that, some of the best friends they have in their lives are from the Catholic school days.”
McKillop, himself a product of Catholic education, said he never witnessed recruiting at Catholic.
“I did not have any sense of that,” McKillop said. “I don’t think it was naivete, either. I would know about it as my position as a college coach. I would know where kids were going. It was never a part of my observation that they were recruiting.”
Brodowicz has coached at Catholic for 10 years. He said during that time the school has had five high-level college recruits -- Mark Harrill (Notre Dame), David Herlocker (Richmond), Elijah Hood (North Carolina), Henry Lawson (N.C. State) and Nick Starcevic (North Carolina). Four, he said, started their Catholic education in elementary school. Hood started in sixth grade. The fathers of Herlocker and Hood both played at Charlotte Catholic.
Hood, 22, is arguably the school’s greatest player. A former North Carolina Tar Heel, Hood is now on the Oakland Raiders’ NFL practice squad. He says he still hears that his alma mater bends rules.
“It’s just hard work and discipline,” Hood said. “Commitment and working hard is a tradition at that school. The results speak for themselves. But if they were recruiting, they’re not doing a good enough job.
“When I think of recruiting, I think of a lot of guys going to big-time colleges and stuff like that. It’s really been me and a couple other guys there who have wound up at the big-time college level. That’s about it.”
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So how does Charlotte Catholic football maintains its success? Read the coaches’ secrets at charlotteobserver.com/sports/high-school