SPENCER — North Rowan’s return to football relevance in 2012 was almost all positive, but the season ended on a sour note with a playoff loss to West Montgomery.
The good news is that defeat stung badly enough and the taste was bitter enough that many Cavaliers vowed not to experience that sort of misery again, and they’ve been camped out in the weight room since last January.
“That loss to West Montgomery, a lot of us took it hard,” rush end Shane Parker said. “I think since the day the last football season ended we started getting ready for this one.”
“This one” has gone according to the green and gold blueprint so far. North, 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in 2A for many weeks, has overwhelmed opponents not just with the speed that everyone knows about, but with serious size and strength in a lot of places.
Three guys who have been instrumental in a consistently stout defense that leads the county in just about everything are Wesley Jefferies, a 6-foot-5, 270-pound tackle; Parker, a large, tough rush end at 235 pounds, and Malik McGee, the 270-pound nose guard. All three are juniors, which means North isn’t going to be any easier to deal with in 2014.
“Those three are great kids who keep practice alive,” North head coach Joe Nixon said. “But when it’s time to play, when it’s time to get serious, they’ve been all business.They’re still improving as a group every week, and that’s what you want to see.”
Parker was a second-teamer last season, while Jefferies and McGee have come from completely under the radar to assume major roles.
“That’s an interesting group right there,” defensive coordinator Stevie Williams said with a chuckle. “Those kids have definitely busted their tails. They’ve become really good players for two reasons — because they got in shape and because they got a lot stronger.”
The only jobs that might be tougher than nose guard are lion tamer and New York City cab driver. Playing nose guard means taking on constant double teams so teammates can make the tackles. Star linebacker Xavier Robinson made 14 tackles Friday. He should send a thank-you card to McGee, who has the low-ego, upbeat personality needed for the nose guard role.
“All we do is work,” McGee said. “And maybe try to beat up on the o-line a little bit in practice. That way we all get better.”
McGee was North’s player of the game when the Cavaliers traveled to Providence Grove. He’s been in on 32 tackles this season.
“Coming into this season, we were really worried about nose guard,” North assistant Josh Sophia said. “Instead of a weakness, it’s become a strength.”
Jefferies is so huge, he’s easy to spot on the field. With his natural size, it’s hard to believe he spent several years aways from football.
“I’ve always been big, but I really didn’t play after second grade up until my freshman year,” Jefferies said. “The boys wanted me to come out, and I decided to give it another shot.”
He had his best game of the season, dominating in North’s 46-7 win against a pretty decent East Davidson club on Friday. Jefferies made six stops and four of them were in the ED backfield. Jefferies has 15 tackles for loss this season. That ranks second on the team to senior end Cecil McCauley, who is enjoying another all-county type season with 8.5 sacks and a whopping 25 tackles for loss.
“Tackles for loss and sacks are things we emphasize,” Williams said. “Stop the run and sack the quarterback. That’s what it’s about.”
Besides using his strength to record eight tackles for loss, Parker has good presence of mind. When Mike Robinson jerked a fumble loose in Friday’s game, it was Parker who pounced on it.
It also was Parker who stuffed a third-and-1 run by East Davidson, a play that forced a punt — and any time North can get the ball back for its offense, it can score in a hurry. One exciting punt return by Kasaun Coney and one great run by Jareke Chambers followed and North had another touchdown in the books.
“We put our game faces on a few times against East Davidson when they were close to scoring,” said Parker, who has been in on 26 tackles.
North also has some depth. When Parker hurt an ankle in the Carson game, sophomore Jake Pritchard stepped in and played in some of North’s toughest games of the season. Pritchard is undersized for the d-line, but he more than held his own.
Jim Herndon also has been a capable reserve.
“It’s next year when we’re going to have some really nice depth on the defensive line,” Williams said. “We’ve got some very good jayvee kids.”
One reason North has been so successful is it hasn’t taken any games off. No matter who the opponent is and no matter what the opponent’s record is, the Cavaliers have showed up like it was a playoff game.
The Cavalies realize the next two opponents, Thomasville and Salisbury, don’t have good records, but they also realize it’s still Thomasville and Salisbury, traditional powers with pride and athletes.
“We expect both of those games to be very tough, and we’re going to prepare hard in practice for those games,” McGee said.
McGee, Jefferies and Parker smile a lot and seem as playful as pups. But on Friday nights, they’ve been Dobermans.
“East Davidson was a pretty physical team,” Nixon said. “But I thought our kids also did their fair share of being physical.”
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