Prep Football: Charlotte Catholic 25, Northwest Cabarrus 14

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 9, 2006

By Bill Kiser

Salisbury Post

CHARLOTTE — Midnight came early — and abruptly — for Cinderella in the state 3AA playoffs.

In this case, “Cinderella” was Northwest Cabarrus, which saw its run through the playoffs end with a 25-14 loss to top-seeded Charlotte Catholic in the 3AA Western Regional final on Friday night.

The 14th-seeded Trojans

(8-7), who made it to the regional final for the first time in 30 years thanks to three straight upsets, looked to be in position to get No. 4 after battling to a 7-7 halftime tie against the Cougars.

But Catholic (13-2) rallied behind its ground game. Fullback Ben Herlocker ran for two of his three touchdowns in the second half to send the Cougars on to the state finals for the third straight year.

There, Charlotte Catholic will attempt to win its second consecutive 3AA title and third straight championship overall against Eastern Randolph

(14-1), which beat Burlington Williams 34-20 for the Eastern Regional title.

The 3AA state championship will be played at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh on Dec. 9. Game time is 4:30 p.m.

Herlocker, a Shrine Bowl pick who is one touchdown shy of tying former Catawba star Mario Crowe for Mecklenburg County’s single-season record, finished with 207 yards on 34 carries for the Cougars. They pounded Northwest Cabarrus’ defense for 330 rushing yards and 20 first downs.

Meanwhile, Catholic’s defense shut down the Trojans’ offense, holding Northwest to just 58 yards and four first downs (none in the third quarter) in the second half.

While freshman quarterback Jeremy Cannon accounted for 184 yards total offense for the Trojans — he ran for 93 yards and threw for 91 and one score — he also threw three interceptions, including a fourth-quarter pick that Catholic defensive lineman Ryan Kula returned 25 yards for a score and a 25-7 Cougars lead.

“We made some mistakes, and we weren’t as crisp on offense as we have been in the past,” Northwest Cabarrus head coach Mike Helms said. “But they’re a very good team … and (Herlocker) is a very good player. We had trouble stopping him.”

Yet Northwest didn’t have those problems in the opening quarter, driving against the Cougars on its first possession and scoring on Cannon’s 39-yard TD pass to Michael Steele.

After the Trojans’ defense stopped Catholic for a three-and-out on its first possession, the feeling that another upset was in the making grew.

“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 had other ideas.

After picking off Cannon on Northwest’s second possession, Catholic drove 80 yards for its first score, keyed by two Herlocker runs — a 30-yard jaunt on fourth-and-1, followed two plays later by his 6-yard TD run.

“I was thinking it could be a long day,” Cougars head coach Jim Oddo said. “But once we got settled in and got used to their speed, we were able to hang with them better on defense.”

Catholic also adjusted to the Trojans’ defense in the second half, with Herlocker and wingbacks Chris Grady (64 yards) and Keith Poulter (36 yards), and even quarterback Connor Gavigan (23 yards) all breaking off long runs.

Two key defensive stops on Northwest’s first two possessions of the second half — the Trojans were pushed back to the NWC 1 on a grounding penalty, followed by Cannon’s second interception — set up two Catholic touchdowns.

Herlocker would score both, pounding in from 7 yards out with 6:06 left in the third quarter to put the Cougars in the lead, then adding a 4-yard TD run with 8:09 remaining to put Catholic up 19-7.

That second scoring drive proved to be a backbreaker for Northwest — a 15-play march that ate more than nine minutes off the clock, with Herlocker touching the ball 10 times.

After Cannon’s third interception led to Kula’s rumbling touchdown return, the Trojans saw a potential scoring drive stopped on downs at the Catholic 1. But on the Cougars’ first play, Gavigan coughed up the ball as he tried a sneak, with Casey Hall diving on the fumble in the end zone to cut Catholic’s lead to 25-14.

“This night didn’t go our way, but we’ve had a lot of nights where things did go our way,” Helms said. “Our guys kept fighting, and they didn’t quit. That’s a good sign; hopefully, a good sign of things to come.”