12/08/06 — 1-AA state final: Warsaw community eating, breathing, living James Kenan football

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1-AA state final: Warsaw community eating, breathing, living James Kenan football

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on December 8, 2006 1:47 PM

WARSAW -- As Ronnie Batts climbed into his middle teen-age years, he could remember choosing to stay at home on Friday nights instead of attending a James Kenan football game.

Batts was a seventh-grader when the Tigers won their only state championship, and a ninth-grader when they claimed the eastern state crown. After that and through most of the next two decades, James Kenan football wasn't the first choice of many Warsaw residents.

"I usually stayed at home and watched TV," Batts recalled.

He's not watching TV now.

Batts, along with residents in Warsaw and surrounding communities, have football fever again.

James Kenan, unbeaten in 15 outings, is playing for its first state title in nearly five decades. The No. 2-ranked Tigers oppose No. 1-ranked Thomasville for the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 1-AA (large-school) championship on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at Kenan Stadium on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.

"The community, right now, is the best I've seen it since the early 1960s," said Batts. "Everybody is buzzing ... wants to chip in and help. This has turned the whole community around. It's good for everybody.

"It's just unbelievable."

The journey back to the good old days started three years ago when Kevin Motsinger resuscitated a program that barely registered a heartbeat. The Tigers won 20-plus games during Motsinger's reign as head coach and advanced to the playoffs each season.

"Kevin built the program where it needed to be," said Batts.

But Motsinger didn't stick around to see the fruits of his labor. He took the head coaching job at Wilmington New Hanover and left the new James Kenan coach a cupboard overflowing with talent.

Batts didn't take long to fill Motsinger's position. Ken Avent Jr. wanted to return to Duplin County and immediately became Batts' top choice for the program. A Catawba College grad, Avent Jr. brought along his brother John, and it's been a perfect fit.

Could Batts see those glory days just beyond the horizon?

"I knew we had the kids and the ability," said Batts. "It was just a matter of adapting to Ken and John, and performing. That's it in a nutshell."

James Kenan opened with an impressive victory over county foe East Duplin. The Tigers collected four more non-conference conquests -- Jacksonville Northside, Farmville Central, Heide Trask and Greene Central.

Off to their best start in four-plus decades, the Tigers aggressively tackled their Super Six schedule. They allowed four touchdowns in four league victories, and set up a season-ending showdown with their number one nemesis -- Wallace-Rose Hill.

Avent lost his first-ever contest against W-RH the year before when he guided North Johnston to the eastern regional championship. More confident and armed with one of the state's top scoring defenses, Avent -- and the Tigers -- finally got that long-awaited victory they and the Warsaw community desired.

James Kenan prevailed 26-12 before some 6,000 fans and ended a seven-game losing streak against its archrival. The Tigers earned the program's first conference title since 1998 and completed regular-season play unbeaten for the first time since 1962.

"Their attitude, their behavior, their desire to play football and their want to win has just been tremendous," said Batts.

A talent- and senior-ladened team with no true superstar, James Kenan cruised in its first two postseason games. The Tigers survived turnovers in a third-round win and erased a two-touchdown deficit in the eastern final against East Bladen.

Now, two-time defending state champion Thomasville remains the final obstacle in the Tigers' quest to complete their fantasy.

"It's a dream come true, but I thought we could do it," said Batts. "Ken and John thought they could do it. It's a good marriage and he's gotten the best out of it."