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A nice surprise Helms turned young NWC team into a state contender

By Bill Kiser

Kannapolis Citizen

When the 2006 high school football season began in mid-August, not many people were counting on Northwest Cabarrus to do much.

After all, the Trojans had lost all of the stars — the Faggart brothers, quarterback Jake and fullback Jerod, and wideout Jeremy Godwin among others — from a team that went 10-2 and easily made it to the state playoffs for the fourth straight year.

Even head coach Mike Helms admitted he had his doubts, especially about a Northwest offense that relied heavily on underclassmen — even a freshman at quarterback — in starting and key reserve roles.

But this year’s Trojans team surprised everyone — fans, coaches, even the players themselves — by going the furthest in the state playoffs in 30 years.

“Yeah, it did surprise me,” Helms said. “I thought we were two years away (from making a run for a state title). … But we started jelling at the right time, and tonight we were four or five plays away from things looking different.”

Northwest Cabarrus made it through three rounds of the 3AA playoffs — upsetting higher-seeded teams in each round — before falling to two-time defending state champion Charlotte Catholic 25-14 last week in the Western Regional final.

The top-seeded Cougars (13-2) will attempt to win their third straight state title — Catholic won the 2AA championship in 2004, and the 3AA title in 2005 — on Saturday when they play Eastern Regional champ Eastern Randolph at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. Game time is 4:30 p.m.

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The Trojans — who finished the season 8-7 — advanced to the Western Regional final for the first time since 1976 behind back-to-back-to-back upsets. And when Northwest scored on its first possession against Catholic, a fourth upset — and a trip to the state finals for the first time in the program’s history — wasn’t out of the question.

Jeremy Cannon — the freshman quarterback mentioned above — had 127 yards total offense in the first half, rushing for 66 yards and throwing for 61 more, including a 39-yard scoring pass to Michael Steele in the first quarter that gave Northwest the early lead.

“When we scored the first time we got the ball, I thought ‘Holy cow, we’re going to mash it in there a bunch,’ ” Helms said.

The Cougars, however, had other ideas.

Charlotte Catholic got its ground game — led by Shrine Bowl fullback Ben Herlocker — on track, and its defense forced Cannon into three interceptions, which the Cougars turned into 19 points.

“We made some mistakes, and we weren’t as crisp on offense as we have been in the past, & quot; Helms said. “But they’re a very good team … and (Herlocker) is a very good player. We had trouble stopping him. When you can run the ball like they can, it’s very difficult to stop it.”

Herlocker finished with 207 yards and three touchdowns for the Cougars, who had 330 total rushing yards, the most given up by the Trojans’ defense this season.

“This was big for us,” Helms said. “We’ve got a good football team. Obviously, Catholic won the game, and they played better than we did tonight.

“But our guys — they could’ve given up a long time ago, but they hung with us and played so hard.”

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A true statement, considering how Northwest Cabarrus started off the season.

After knocking off Concord — which will play for its second 3A statechampionship on Saturday against Western Alamance — in the season opener, the Trojans went on to lose their next four games (to Central Cabarrus, J.M. Robinson, Mount Pleasant and North Iredell), three by a total of nine points.

But Northwest turned its season around by winning four of its last six games — the losses came to West Rowan and West Iredell, which finished 1-2 in the North Piedmont Conference standings — to qualify for the state playoffs.

That’s when things really started happening for the Trojans.

First, Northwest Cabarrus — seeded 14th in the 16-team Western Regional field — beat No. 3 seed Hickory 31-24 in its opening-round game at Hickory’s Frank Barger Stadium.

Then, the Trojans traveled Asheville for their second-round game against No. 6 seed T.C. Roberson at Guy Ensley Stadium, and returned with a 14-10 victory Nov. 17.

And on Nov. 24, Northwest went to Lawndale (near Shelby) to play second-seeded Burns, overcoming a record-setting 453-yard passing night by Lance Camp to rally for a 37-33 win. That set up last week’s regional title matchup against Catholic.

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Now the question is, can the Trojans repeat their playoff run — or even go one round better — next year?

While Northwest will lose several starters on defense — notably, defensive linemen Jay Bostick, Jamar Caldwell and Tripper Frye, and linebackers Mario Lynch, Jamar Thomas and Jonathan Beam — to graduation, they will return a more-experienced offense.

Chief among the returnees is Cannon, who threw for 1,259 yards and seven touchdowns and ran for 543 yards and eight TDs. Also returning will be running backs Jamie Bird (241 yards, 1 TD) and Jarrod Smith (134 yards, 1 TD), and wide receivers Graham Wright (49 catches, 625 yards, 4 TDs), Kris Farley (35 catches, 402 yards, 3 TDs), and Walter Hudnell (three catches, 100 yards)

“It was a weird game, and it took some different turns,” Helms said. “But I was very proud of our players. We’ve got a regional runner-up trophy to put in our trophy case. This is something we can hopefully build on, and hope that our guys will use this as motivation to get better and keep working hard.

“They now know that it can be done if you work at it. Catholic works at it; that’s why they’ve got a good program.”

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