Celebrating success

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey welcomes and congratulates senior right tackle Jabari Smalls and the rest of the North Charleston High School football team who gathered at City Hall for a celebratory meal. As a pep rally, Summey grilled steaks for the

It was so important for North Charleston leaders to get behind the success of the Cougars that they put aside city business Thursday night and cooked steaks for the players at City Hall.

Wonder what will happen if the North Charleston High School team wins tonight at Myrtle Beach and advances to the semi-finals in the Class AAA championship chase?

Football is big in America and big in South Carolina. But until this season, big-time success on the field for North Charleston High has been mostly elusive for a school where its record of poor academics has drawn bigger headlines.

Eight principals in six years have come and gone. So have a slew of teachers. Because of renovations, the student body isn't even attending classes in the regular school building on East Montague Avenue. Instead, they travel seven miles away to Brentwood Middle.

Yet the football team is 11-1 (up from 8-4 last year) and off to its best showing in the decade that head coach and former Citadel player Jimmy Brown has been a part of North Charleston athletics.

One reason for the team's success, Brown said, is that not much has been consistent about North Charleston High, making his players flexible.

"The one thing about the kids and the coaches I have," he said, "is that nothing blind-sides us. Nothing takes us by surprise."

Still, Brown did have reservations about allowing the 33 members of his team -- and the cheerleaders -- to sit down for a meal of steak, chicken and potatoes, grill-cooked by Mayor Keith Summey.

"Our best asset is our routine," the coach said. "So when you do things to screw up that routine, you don't know how they are going to respond."

Summey said he chose to honor the school that carries the city's moniker with a pre-game meal to let the players know they are appreciated, even if it hasn't shown up in the stands.

"They need to know we're proud of what they've done," said Summey, Chicora High School Class of 1965. The meal was paid for by donations, he added.

Today, there are pressures on North Charleston High that seem distant from the days when Summey was in public school. The high-poverty, low-performing campus faces intense scrutiny and pressure to improve after the school board voted to reconstitute the school, which meant all employees had to reapply for their jobs.

About 40 percent of the school's teachers were rehired, and the school's former principal was replaced with veteran district leader Juanita Middleton, who ordered a mandatory one-hour after-school tutoring program for athletes. That means the team's afternoon practices are constrained by schoolwork time and the cumbersome roundup of kids on shuttle buses and into car pools to get them to the practice field at North Charleston High.

Brown said he's seen signs around North Charleston that people are noticing the team's success, enough to maybe even give them a spark tonight against the likely favored Myrtle Beach High Seahawks. That team is also 11-1 but has the home field advantage.

"The bandwagon is getting bigger," Brown said.