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Dragons bring hope to local football

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KNIGHTDALE — There’s a new semi-pro professional football team coming to Knightdale this fall. The Carolina Dragons are ready to take on the Atlantic Coast Football Association with Knightdale High School being their home for some local gridiron.

It was announced Aug. 5 that Knightdale High School will officially sponsor the Carolina Dragons, a semi-pro football team that started in Irwin. The Dragons played last spring out of Zebulon Middle School.

In their first season as a team in the spring of 2018, the Dragons played against the Carolina Cardinals out of Durham in the Independent American Football League state championship game. They competed in the Phantom Bowl Series Airman Classic and won a championship in Goldsboro.

In the spring, the Dragons went 3-7 overall with two of their wins coming by way of forfeit. In their final game of the season, the Dragons beat the defending league champions in a 19-18 comeback victory.

This year, the Dragons will be led by head coach Craig Tunstall, who took over for the team in the middle of the season in the spring. Once he took over, the Dragons saw their scoring average skyrocket to a touchdown per quarter.

Tunstall is an Army veteran who has coached football at the high school and semi-pro level in California. His parents live in North Carolina, so he moved here for an opportunity to coach football.

“I reached out to the Carolina Dragons and had an opportunity to be a part of the organization,” Tunstall said. “I started out as the offensive coordinator. I had to take care of some family issues in California, but now I’m back.”

Jonathan Kauth is the president of the Carolina Dragons and turned it into a local nonprofit organization. He is also an Army veteran who served three years in Iraq.

Kauth is a disabled veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder after his time overseas. As a graduate of East Wake High School back in 2002, he said being a part of a semi-pro football team in the eastern Wake County area has not only helped him, but others in the local area tremendously.

“I was in a downward spiral after getting out of the Army dealing with PTSD,” Kauth said. “This semi-pro team does a lot to help veterans. It’s been nothing but good things. We’re a team where we don’t care where anybody has come from. A lot of high school players don’t get a chance to play. Here, you earn what you want to get.”

Fellow Army veteran Tunstall agrees with Kauth, saying that being a part of semi-pro football brings a glimmer of hope to young athletes in the community.

“I see talent here with the Dragons,” Tunstall said. “I’m living my dream through these guys. I played football all my life. Coaching is in my family with my dad and brother. I like to see players progress. I like the opportunity to teach. I see us making huge strides in the right direction.”

Within the past two years, the Dragons have already made huge strides in finding success for their players at the next level. Since spring 2018, the Dragons have sent five of their players to college with scholarships and three of them are now playing for professional arena leagues.

“The reach is endless,” Kauth said. “By supporting us, you’re providing your kids with a chance to be with acceptable role models in the community. This can bring football back to your backyard.”

One of those kids is Kendell Thomas, who played running back and slot receiver for the Dragons in the spring. He currently lives in Wendell and graduated from Knightdale in 2017. Thomas played one year at Louisburg College but was looking for more opportunities to play his favorite sport in the local area.

“My friend, D.J. Ward, invited me,” Thomas said. “I wanted to try out after spending a year playing football at Louisburg College. I just did what I had to do to make the team.”

Thomas is one of many football players who have competed in high schools in Wake County who get to continue playing at a semi-pro level. Former Wake Forest High School Cougar Shyheem Mitchell is on the squad. The Dragons also feature Dominique Williams from Rolesville, Lavonte Mouzzon from Heritage and many more.

“It feels good to keep playing football in my hometown,” Thomas said. “I’ve always wanted to play football. I was nervous at first this past spring. I just want to play better this year.”

This fall, the Dragons will compete in the ACFA in the South Division against teams such as the Carolina Punishers out of Dunn, the Carolina Red Devils out of Jacksonville and the Richmond Jets from Virginia. The North Division features teams from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

In his first year as the full-time head coach, Tunstall is getting his players ready for the upcoming season kicking off this September. He’s confident his team will perform well in a new league.

“We’re working on discipline heading into this season,” Tunstall said. “We’re working on respect and commitment. We can’t give up. There were a lot of games we should have won last spring. The guys hung their heads in our losses. That will change this fall season. We’re going to be accountable with each other this year.”

Not only are the Dragons focusing on winning on the field, but off the gridiron as well. The team provides resume reviews, Biblical financial literacy counseling, supporting military veterans and donations toward local youth programs.

“This is something that is a huge stepping stone for local football players to get a chance to see local talent,” Tunstall said. “These guys didn’t earn a scholarship or had enough money to go to college. That does not mean that they don’t have the ability to play. There is no professional team localized around here, so we get to represent our home. We have a lot of people on our team who want to be role models. They feed off of that when they see kids at the games.”

The Carolina Dragons will play their first game of the season in Baltimore against the York Football team Sept. 7 at 7 p.m. Their first home game of the season will be at Knightdale on Sept. 14 at 7 p.m. against the Carolina Red Devils. The Dragons will play two more home games in October.

“I don’t know what to say about my opportunity to play for these guys this fall,” Thomas said. “We’re going to be exciting to watch. We’re going to bring that inspiring football atmosphere to Knightdale.”

Team fees for the Carolina Dragons are $200 per season, plus the cost of travel and equipment. For more information, visit the team’s website at www.carolinadragons.org or call 919-400-2425.

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