Credit: Sam Crenshaw
Unbeaten Central Gwinnett Produces an Improbable Sucess Story
Off to a 4-0 start for the first time since 1984, it feels like the best of times in Lawrenceville. The early season success of the Central Gwinnett Black Knights has brought on a kind of euphoria that has swept up the student body, faculty and community. But head coach Larry Harold is tapping the brakes.
“We’ve got Miller Grove on Friday and it’s homecoming,” says Harold. “You worry about distractions with homecoming. I just had a teacher stop me and say that morale around the school has never been this high. Everybody is so excited. They haven’t been 5-0 since 1980.”
According to Georgia High School Football Historians, the 1980 Central Gwinnett team was the best in the school’s history. Coach Tally Johnson’s Black Knights went 13-1 that season, advancing to the state semifinal. Johnson was also the coach of the 1984 squad that started 4-0, the milestone that the 2022 Black Knights equaled with a 28-14 win over Habersham Central last week.
“Friday was huge because this group had never beaten Habersham,” says Harold. “They had to go on the road up there. They didn’t even score against them last year, so to go up there, play disciplined and play fundamentally sound was big. They got five turnovers. We were able to hang in there until the running game got going and put it into overdrive. It was tied at halftime. For some reason in all four games, we have started slow and right before the half we will score. So, 7-7 at half, then they went up 14-7 for the longest, but I tell the guys that we are a second half team.”
A major part of that second-half rally was the running of Jason Jackson, who rushed for 271 yards and three touchdowns, but he was also contributing in another way.
“He led the team in rushing last year, but we needed some help on defense at safety,” says Harold. “I guess he wasn’t making the impact that he wanted and was getting a little frustrated, so we had him carry the ball more. He had no negative yards, so Jason Jackson did a great job. Our sophomore quarterback Makhi Cunningham is just a winner. Late in the games he doesn’t get rattled, and we have another sophomore running back in Carmello Jeffrey. He had 85 yards rushing against Habersham.”
Harold gets a certain excitement in his voice when he talks about his team’s ability to run the ball and points to some experience on the offense line. A big reason why the Black Knights finished Friday’s win with 367 total rushing yards.
Guard Josh Brooks, a 315-pounder, anchors the line. He picked up his first college offer from Florida Memorial on Friday. The Black Knights start senior Samir Dervisevic at guard, freshman Tre Davila at center and juniors Chris Owusu and William Tynes at tackle.
“We leaned on them against Habersham, Apalachee and Jackson County,” Harold said. “We were able to run the ball late and hold on. I appreciate (Habersham) coach Benji Harrison saying that they had beaten Central the past two years and how much we had improved at the line of scrimmage.”
What makes Central Gwinnett’s 4-0 start even more amazing is that the program is coming off back-to-back 1-9 seasons and that Harold wasn’t hired as head coach until just before spring practice.
“I didn’t get hired until April 14th,” recalls Harold. “We had a spring game against Johns Creek in early May, so I didn’t really have a chance to install anything. We kind of threw stuff up on the wall. We had to keep things short, simple and sweet and just asked the kids to play fast. We finished the spring with 72 kids and right now we currently have about 115 kids on our roster. Maybe 38-40 freshmen came in and we got some kids from the hallways. Our numbers are up and still more kids want to come out now that we are winning. I don’t have enough helmets for them.”
While Harold may have to come up with more cash for helmets, the Black Knights will save money on bus trips as members of Region 8-7A. The region opponents are either located in Lawrenceville or a short drive away. The difficult part is that those region opponents include Buford, Mill Creek and Collins Hill, all state-ranked teams.
"It’s good to get these wins now," says Harold. “We know that we will need to be so much better with region play coming up. We are in one the toughest regions, probably in America -- not just Georgia, but America. This week Miller Grove is scary; they’re fast and athletic. They are everything that we are not. We will have our hands full as they dropped a tough one to Campbell last week, so we have a lot to prepare for."
Harold is a generous man when it comes to giving credit for success in such a short window of time at Central Gwinnett. After time on the coaching staffs at Tennessee and Kentucky State, the former Macon County head coach was looking to return to the high school game and help shape the lives of young people. Where he has landed is not the place that he sought, and he credits divine Intervention with placing him at the right place at the right time .
“I was looking to get back into south Georgia or maybe middle Georgia,” recalls Harold. “I have always heard negative things about metro Atlanta, but it is nothing like I imagined. Once I met with AD (Jason) Carerra and Principal (Shane) Orr, I saw their passion, drive and vision for the football program, and I was blown away. I was also blown away by the facilities. Just a lot of positive energy here. It just showed me that this was the place that God had for me. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but He knows best.“
This week Football Friday’s in Georgia will feature Lowndes at East Coweta. Kickoff is at 7:30 p.m. on the Great GPB!