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Prep Football: East Rowan Preview

GRANITE QUARRY — When the NCHSAA subdivided and expanded the state playoffs in 2002, many more teams were granted an opportunity to participate in the postseason fun.

But those bubble teams with four or five wins were supposed to be eliminated by a first-round game on the road against a lofty seed. Revenue would be generated by those first-round games, and then the good teams could get down to serious business.

At least, that’s how it’s always worked in the past.

The 2014 East Rowan squad is the ninth Rowan County team to enter the state playoffs with a losing record in the regular season. The current Mustangs are the first of those nine to win a playoff game.

And now they’ve won two. That 5-6 record now stands at 7-6.

The Mustangs were supposed to be on the basketball court. Instead, they’ve enjoyed busting brackets. They are a No. 15 seed. Across the state, the next-lowest seeds playing in the third round are No. 12s.

No matter what happens next, the Mustangs, who are on the road again Friday at No. 6 Belmont South Point, have notched a piece of history with two road playoff wins.

“I’ve coached a lot of places, been with a lot of teams,” East Rowan defensive coordinator John Fitz said. “There always are ups and downs and dips, but not this team. I’ve seen this team steadily get better week by week.”

The Mustangs have played very well or pretty well in eight of their last nine games. The exception was a Senior Night loss to South Rowan, a team that finished eighth in the nine-team South Piedmont Conference. That loss was the reason most of the world wrote off the Mustangs, and it made their 50-49 win at undefeated Morganton Freedom in the first round of the 3A playoffs even more improbable.

The Mustangs got a late start. Kenneth McClamrock was hired as head coach back in March, but this staff wasn’t completed until the first day of practice when Fitz came on board as defensive coordinator. Fitz spent 12 years at Webb High in Oxford, followed by six years at Wlimington New Hanover, four as head coach. He came to Salisbury to join Chip Hester’s Catawba staff as defensive coordinator in 2006 and was there through 2012 when Catawba made sweeping staff changes. Fitz was head coach at Jay M. Robinson High in Concord in 2013, but he feels fortunate that he got a chance to work at East Rowan this year. His son, Jackson, goes to Erwin Middle School, across the street from East Rowan.

“It worked out great for me,” Fitz said. “But we did get a late start. My first day with the team was the first day of practice.”

East Rowan is known mostly for offense. The Wyrick twins have put up massive numbers that have broken school and county records. Running back Max Wall has 850 rushing yards despite missing a game with a concussion. There also are some big guys on the offensive line, including at least two college prospects. This is the highest-scoring team in school history.

Still, you don’t make the third round without defense.

“Everyone talks about the touchdown and 2-point conversion we had late in the game to win at Freedom,” McClamrock said. “But if our defense doesn’t make them punt with two minutes to go, it’s the end of the story. The West Henderson game last week, same thing. Our defense stopped them when we had to stop them.”

McClamrock and Fitz agree yards allowed is an overrated stat. The bottom line for a defense is getting the crucial stop to win the ballgame or give the offense a chance to win it.

“Ballgames usually come down to four plays,” Fitz said. “We had key stops at West Henderson. Shiheem Saunders batted down a fourth-down pass when they were threatening. We had a really big fourth-and-1 stop early in that game. Shiheem, Jake Boltz and Robert Barringer were in on that one.

“Stopping a fourth-and-1 is huge because it makes them think about going for it again. If you don’t stop them, they’ll go for it every time, and it can be a long night.”

Sixth-seeded South Point (9-4), which started 0-2 against a really difficult schedule, was supposed to lose at previously undefeated Concord last week but did not. Actually, South Point handled the Spiders with relative ease and won 37-21.

Coach Mickey Lineberger’s team  is a run-run-run squad that controls the ball and gets about 88 percent of its yardage on the ground. It’s a triple-option offense directed by explosive quarterback Jaquan Brooks, who had three long touchdown runs to kill Concord, Tanner Muse, a Clemson commit, is a speedster who makes big plays in the defensive secondary and also is  a 1,000-yard rusher. Fullback Ryland Etherton is a battering-ram workhorse for the Red Raiders. He’s banged out nearly 1,500 yards. If the Mustangs can stop Etherton on the dive —  that’s always the first task defending the option —  Brooks and Muse will try to go to work on the outside.

“We’ve seen some option teams, but they run the option tighter and execute it better than anybody we’ve played,” McClamrock said. “They’ve been doing what they do since before I was born and they’re very good at it.”

During his time at Catawba, Fitz coordinated defenses that had to deal with Carson-Newman and Lenoir-Rhyne, programs that execute triple-option offense as well as anyone in the country in Division II.

“South Point’s offense is the same offense Lenoir-Rhyne runs now,” Fitz said. “You worry about those linemen getting off the ball, getting  to your linebackers, and they’re very hard to stop. They’re going to get their yards, but we’ve got to make them punt the ball some. We’ve got to get the big stops.”

All of South Point’s backs concern Fitz, but Brooks, the quarterback, may be his biggest worry.

“Some option quarterbacks are looking to pitch it, but this kid wants to run it,” Fitz said.

NOTES: While East Rowan has never played South Point, Rowan County has substantial history against the school, which was Belmont High before it was renamed South Point in 1969. …Salisbury battled to a 14-14 tie with South Point in the 1971 WNCHSAA championship game. South Rowan lost to South Point in the 2008 playoffs. West Rowan beat South Point in the 2008 playoffs but lost to the Red Raiders in 2013.


Mike London: 704-797-4259; twitter.com/mikelondpost3





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