April 17, 2014

Let’s keep playing

College next for Bartley, Lowe

Academic offerings played a big part in which college football program nabbed Christian Heritage School’s Nich Bartley, one of the area’s top players in 2013.

In the process, the Lions’ standout wide receiver engineered his college football hopes into a Division I reality.

Bartley earned a partial academic scholarship and said he will be a preferred walk-on at Macon’s Mercer University, a Football Championship Series program that returned to the gridiron in 2013 after last fielding a team in 1941. Bartley celebrated his opportunity Wednesday afternoon with fellow Christian Heritage senior Austin Lowe, who is receiving a partial academic scholarship to Rome’s Berry College, a member of the NCAA’s Division III, whose programs cannot offer athletic scholarships.

Christian Heritage coach Preston Poag knows the college game well. The Dalton High School graduate played quarterback at North Carolina State, where he was later a graduate assistant, and went on to work as the offensive coordinator at South Carolina’s Newberry College and Virginia Military Institute. He said both Mercer and Berry added quality student-athletes.

“They are getting good kids who are good academically and will stay out of trouble,” Poag said. “When I’m a college coach, I’m looking at what else they bring to the table. These kids bring a lot of good.”

Bartley explained Mercer’s prestige as a Division I school factored into his decision — but it wasn’t what mattered most.

“Being D-I was definitely a part of it,” he said, “but the biggest point was engineering, which I want to major in. They’re one of five schools in Georgia that offers engineering.”

And they’re one of a handful of schools Bartley considered. His finalists included Berry and LaGrange College — also a Division III program — and Division II schools Carson-Newman University (Jefferson City, Tenn.) and Newberry.

Mercer expressed interest during Bartley’s senior year, but he didn’t make his decision until recently.

“During the season, they called and wanted me to come to a game,” he said. “I wasn’t able to make it due to prior obligations with family. I drifted away a little bit. ... Then in March they called and asked me if I still was interested.”

Mercer is coached by Bobby Lamb, who was the head coach at Furman University from 2002 to 2010 and is the brother of Calhoun High School football coach Hal Lamb. The Bears went 10-2 last season while competing in the Pioneer Football League, an FCS conference whose programs don’t offer athletic scholarships, but they will be a member of the Southern Conference this year.

The Bears will play Oct. 25 at the University of Tennessee-Chatta-nooga, with whom Northwest Whit-field defensive lineman Isaiah Mack signed earlier this year.

Bartley and Mack are the only players from Murray or Whitfield counties this year — so far — who have announced they are going on to Division I programs.

“I’m trying to build up the school and be a light to the community,” Bartley said. “I’m just trying to do everything the right way and stay humble. It means a lot to be one of the few Division I athletes to come from such a small school.”

Also a basketball and baseball player at Christian Heritage, Bartley made The Daily Citizen’s 2013 All-Area Football team — and Lowe was an honorable mention — as Christian Heritage finished the regular season 8-3 and reached the Class A private school state playoffs in just the program’s second season as a Georgia High School Association program. The Lions, who had previously competed in the Glory For Christ Football League, lost to Region 6 rival Darlington in the opening round.

Poag believes Mercer will benefit by having Bartley in the program.

“They got a good one,” he said. “I’ve coached a lot in college and high school, and I’ve never seen a kid with as good of ball skills as Nich Bartley. He’s the one who has the best ball skills of any kid I’ve coached.”

Bartley led all varsity wide receivers in Murray and Whitfield counties this past season with 70 receptions, 1,214 receiving yards and 15 receiving touchdowns. According to figures from Georgia High School Football Daily, an email newsletter, his stats ranked among the best from wideouts in all six GHSA classifications during the regular season.

In addition to local honors, Bartley was a first-team member of the Georgia Sports Writers Associ-ation’s All-State Class A squad.

“Throughout my entire life I thought baseball would be the way to go,” said Bartley, who transferred from North Murray High School after his freshman season, along with Trevor Brown, the Lions’ starting quarterback the past three years. “I was better and enjoyed it more. I leaned that way until my junior year, when I had a breakout year in football.”

Lowe, a bruising, tough-to-tackle fullback and linebacker, ran for 629 yards and nine touchdown on 106 carries and had 15 receptions for 263 yards and three more scores last season. On defense, he recorded 106 tackles and forced and recovered two fumbles each. He also had an interception.

“Not only that, he catches the ball well,” Poag said. “He was good out of the backfield. He has good balance. (Berry likes) him because he’s hard to bring down and has such good balance when he’s cutting and running. ... I think he’ll help them at fullback.”

Berry competes in the Southern Athletic Association and finished 0-9 in 2013 — including a 43-0 loss to Mercer — its first season in program history.

“The plan is just to be a fullback or an all-purpose back,” Lowe said. “I could play linebacker if someone gets injured. I think primarily I’m there as a running back or fullback.”

Lowe also considered Mercer, Reinhardt and Shorter. He had Berry listed last among his suitors.

His mother insisted he visit the school, and everything changed when he did.

“The team is about what I’m about, close brotherhood,” Lowe said. “The team isn’t that big. Everyone is close. It’s kind of like what I have at Christian Heritage, so I wanted to continue that.”

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