Catawba edges West Liberty in defensive struggle
SALISBURY — Catawba Indians huddled together and listened intently to a poem prior to Saturday’s game at Shuford Stadium against West Liberty.
Ordinarily, there’s no poetry-reading in football, but rhyme-time paid off in Catawba’s bitterly fought 10-9 victory against West Liberty that officially opened Curtis Walker’s head-coaching tenure.
“It’s a good poem,” explained burly defensive lineman Damein Lee. “It’s all about facing adversity. I know parts of it, but L.J. McCray is the one who memorized it.”
McCray, Catawba’s All-America kick returner and free safety, discovered the old-school poem “See It Through” in the offseason.
“I learned it because I thought it might mean a lot to this team,” McCray explained. “I said the poem before the game under the goalposts, and we all felt the moment.”
“See It Through” begins:
When you’re up against a trouble,
Meet it squarely, face to face;
Lift your chin and set your shoulders,
Plant your feet and take a brace.
Saturday was basically 48 minutes of chin-lifting, shoulder-setting and feet-planting by Catawba’s defense. Catawba forced nine punts, and the visiting Hilltoppers were 3-for-17 on third-down conversions and 0-for-1 going for it on fourth down.
West Liberty twice had first-and-goal in the second half, and both times McCray, Lee and their defensive cohorts forced a field goal.
West Liberty was able to creep from 10-3 to 10-6 to 10-9, but Catawba stayed on top.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” a drained Walker said. “But I was proud of our team for continuing to fight until we prevailed. The defense made some stands and was a good part of it, but offense and special teams fought too.”
New quarterback Danny O’Brien, mobile and accurate, threw for 189 yards and a touchdown and showed why he’s been a Division I starter.
Veteran receiver Nate Charest did what he often does — nine catches for 111 yards. Catawba also got 155 net rushing yards from the tag-team of O’Brien, Cary Littlejohn, David Burgess and Trey Mashore.
There were no turnovers and no huge mistakes by either team.
Mostly the crowd on a 78-degree day was treated to a punting contest between Catawba’s Chad Hollandsworth and West Liberty’s Griffin Yocum.
“What hurt our offensive drives was holding penalties,” Walker said. “We put ourselves behind the sticks too many times.”
Catawba took a 7-3 lead when Charest caught a 10-yard TD pass from O’Brien in the second quarter. That play capped a 90-yard drive fueled by strong runs by Burgess.
Hollandsworth kicked a low liner that just cleared the crossbar for a 47-yard field goal and a 10-3 halftime lead.
After that, Catawba’s defense grimly hung on.
“We came together,” safety Mark McDaniel said. “We were very motivated to win.”
Facing fourth-and-3 at its 46 late in the game, West Liberty elected to punt. The kick was downed at the Catawba 17 with 2:37 left, and WL still had all of its timeouts.
From “See It Through:
You may fail, but fall still fighting; Don’t give up, whate’er you do; Eyes front, head high to the finish. See it through!
Two running plays gained 2 yards and killed 12 seconds.
“We had to do something or they were going to get good field position,” Walker said.
On third-and-8, Walker trusted O’Brien and Charest.
“We knew what they’d give us,” Charest said. “We knew I’d be open, and I guess the football gods were with us.”
O’Brien fired a slant to Charest. He appeared to be stopped shy of the first down, but the spot was generous, the chains moved, and the crowd roared. Catawba had the win.
“We had trouble finishing games last year,” McCray said. “This was a big step. Today, we saw it through.”