College Football: North Greenville 21, Catawba 14
SALISBURY - "In these times, you have to be an optimist to open your eyes in the morning."
So spoke poet Carl Sandburg many years ago, and Catawba football coach Chip Hester can certainly relate.
Even eternal optimist Hester's shoulders were sagging a bit after a discouraging 21-14 loss to North Greenville on homecoming Saturday at Shuford Stadium.
North Greenville (3-6) appeared an ideal opponent to end the Indians' recent struggles, but instead the Crusaders piled on in front of 2,314 fans.
"They were better than their record, and we knew they would be," Hester said quietly. "Their nose guard came back today. He made it tough to run the ball, and when we can't run the ball the way we want to, we can't do what we want to do."
Hester ran down the usual grocery list of problems - the standard painfully slow start, the frustrating lack of execution, the frustrating inability to make that one big play on either side of the ball that separates victory from defeat.
Hester hugged former players who had come back to watch the Indians, but there wasn't a lot to say. Five years ago, Hester was coaching Catawba on a seven-game winning streak. Now Catawba has lost five straight. It's the first low-five for the Indians since 1994.
Catawba's 3-1 start has faded to 3-6, and an O-for-October showing has wiped out any hope for achieving the most modest goal any team sets - a winning season.
"It was the same story again today," junior safety L.J. McCray said. "We get a bad start, we come back, and then we can't quite finish."
Catawba has dug a 14-0 hole four straight weeks - spotting Carson-Newman, Mars Hill, Wingate and then North Greenville two touchdowns.
"I can't really explain it," Catawba's freshman quarterback B.J. Sherrill said. "We have good practices, we study hard, and we prepare hard, but we still start slow. Maybe we should tell the scoreboard operator to put 'second quarter' up there at the start of the game."
Catawba's offense managed a woeful 13 yards in the first quarter, and the Indians punted on each of their first four possessions.
After barely converting a third-and-8, the Crusaders took a 6-0 lead early in the second quarter on Nelson Hughes' 9-yard scoring pass to Troy Jones.
Seven minutes after that, Catawba's defense provided an uplifting stop when Damien Lee and Stephen Davis stuffed a fourth-and-1 run at the Catawba 9.
But euphoria turned into dismay a few seconds later when linebacker Jonathon Sharpe picked off Sherrill and returned the ball 12 yards for a touchdown.
"Just one of those things that happens," Sherrill said, shaking his head. "I thought I had Nate (Charest) on a little hitch route and I never saw the linebacker. Sometimes you don't see the dude until he's got the ball in his hands."
That was a lethal, game-changing play, but Sherrill, who is playing with two bum ankles, bounced back from it. He would finish with a 20-for-38 passing day for 239 yards, and one of his 20 completions was a beautiful 25-yard strike to Charest that pulled the Indians within 14-7 at halftime.
Catawba put together a 99-yard drive in the third quarter that featured three Sherrill completions to Jarrid McKinney for 56 yards. A 27-yard, juggling catch by McKinney got that drive started. Xavier Bond got the score from the 5, and Chad Hollandsworth's PAT made it 14-14 with 6:35 left in the third quarter.
That 99-yard drive showed what Catawba is capable of, but the Indians didn't finish any more drives.
The crushing play for Catawba's defense came with the Crusaders facing third-and-13 at the Catawba 36 late in the third quarter. Hughes hit Freddie Marino for 21 yards to move the chains, and North Greenville punched it in from there for the decisive touchdown.
"Our main focus all week was getting stops on third down," McCray said. "We drilled on third-and-5s, and if you let 'em get 5, you ran extra. But we made one mistake on the biggest third down today. They convert third-and-long, and then they get the touchdown."
Catawba still had plenty of opportunities, But Sherrill was picked off trying to find Gary Williams in some traffic with 2:42 left.
When Sherrill's fourth-down pass toward Diante Hodges was broken up by Cejay Thomas at the North Greenville 20 with 42 seconds left, it was officially over.
"We're trying like crazy and fighting like crazy," Hester said grimly. "But there's no consistency at all. We have to find some way to play better."
Catawba's final home game is next Saturday against Brevard.