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High school football: Hornets dominate first-round home game

Salisbury handles Tigers in first round of playoffs

JON C. LAKEY/SALISBURY POST Salisbury’s Max Morgan (22) picked up a fumble by Mt Pleasant and ran it back for a touchdown. The Salisbury high varsity football team defeated Mount Pleasant high 45-7 in the open round of the state playoffs. Salisbury,North Carolina,11/15/19.

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — Another ball popped out of the arms of a crumpling Mount Pleasant ball carrier, the Salisbury Hornets recovered, and SHS linebacker Jabril Norman cheerfully extended three fingers as he headed to the sideline.

Three fingers because it was the senior’s third caused fumble on a frosty Friday at Ludwig Stadium. Norman was dominant. Jalon Walker,  Zae Clay and Vance Honeycutt were really strong. A lot of teammates contributed in a 45-7 romp against Mount Pleasant in the first round of the 2AA East state playoffs.

“Salisbury’s defense, as a whole, is really good, but that No. 12 (Norman) was just amazing,” Mount Pleasant head coach Michael Johns said. “We’ve played against a lot of good ones this year, some D-I commits, but he’s as good as anyone we’ve been up against. He’s not small, but he plays bigger than his size. He’s outstanding.”

While seventh-seeded Salisbury (10-2) was favored and while it’s true 10th-seeded Mount Pleasant (4-8) doesn’t qualify as a powerhouse, it was still a breakthrough success for the Hornets.  They’ve won 10 games for the first time since 2012. They prevailed in the playoffs for the first time since 2014. They completely overwhelmed a playoff opponent for the first time since they wiped out Central Davidson, 42-14, in the second round in 2012 to give Joe Pinyan the 99th of his 100 Salisbury coaching victories.

The Hornets weren’t flawless. Honeycutt tossed two picks (Sawyer Osborne got both of them). The Hornets lost a fumble and were stung by double-digit penalties. But there was a whole lot more good than bad. The Hornets created five turnovers, with Lawon Blackwell and Donavan Corpening intercepting passes and Max Morgan turning a loose pigskin into a scoop-and-score.  The Hornets registered five sacks (Clay had a couple) and stuffed Mount Pleasant’s offense. The Tigers managed an occasional first down, but most of their chain-moving was done by flags.

“We felt like Mount Pleasant was playing its best football of the season coming in here, but our defense has been our calling card all season and our defense had a good night,” SHS head coach Brian Hinson said. “We’ll be playing a good football team (second-seeded Washington) on the road next week, but we feel like we’ll be taking a good team to play them.”

Salisbury had the ball first and promptly turned in one of the ugliest series of  all-time. Honeycutt lost 3 yards on a run, threw incomplete, and then on third-and-13, he threw one to a guy in the wrong color jersey — Osborne. Salisbury’s defense was headed onto the field, with Mount Pleasant perched on the SHS 25 and threatening to score first.

“One thing we had talked about and worked on in practice was their trick plays,” Norman said. “Mount Pleasant uses a lot of them.”

The Tigers were ready to employ trickery right away. Looking to build on the momentum of that quick turnover, the call was for a halfback pass.

“That play didn’t work because our guys did a great job in pass coverage,” Norman said. “The back wanted to throw it, but then he hesitated.”

That’s when Norman arrived with some authority for caused fumble No. 1. The ball was loose near the Salisbury sideline. Blaine Shellhorn got it.

A couple of determined runs by Mike McLean got a Salisbury drive started. Then it was Honeycutt’s time to redeem himself.

Curly-haired, tall and slim, Honeycutt, a junior who has committed to UNC baseball, looks like a cross country runner who has accidentally wandered onto the football field. He doesn’t appear to be all that quick, but there’s an awful lot of athletic juice flowing through that long body. His father (Bobby) played on the diamond for UNC in the College World Series, while his mother (Leah Ann) was one of the best 800 and 1600 runners Rowan County has ever seen and competed for the Tar Heels. Vance’s older sisters, Julia (soccer) and Kayla (tennis), were angels off the field, but devils on it. Both were Rowan County players of the year.

“Vance is deceptive,” Hinson said. “He’s a very good runner and he takes long strides. Maybe people should be starting to realize what he can do, but we’ve got enough offensive weapons that teams can’t key on any one guy.”

Johns had studied film of Honeycutt breaking a long one against North Davidson, and the Black Knights have faster people than Mount Pleasant does. Johns had cautioned his team that Honeycutt could go. But Honeycutt still went — 44 yards, touchdown, 6-0.

“That sequence was just huge,” Hinson said. “Getting that fumble to get the ball back, and then that first score. Our first offensive series could not have gone much worse, but one of the best things about Vance is he doesn’t rattle. He’ll have bad plays, but he can move right on to the next one.”

Salisbury’s defense went back to work with that 6-0 lead. Mount Pleasant went three-and-out. Mount Pleasant punted, and it wasn’t long before Tigers were chasing Honeycutt to the end zone again. Defenders took bad angles, underestimating his speed. This time he sprinted 51 yards for 12-0.

“We knew they were going to try to be physical with us,” Honeycutt said. “What we talked about this week was the importance of getting out fast and getting a lead. On both of the touchdowns, I was just trying to get first downs, trying to keep the chains moving.”

Salisbury’s offensive line did its job, obviously. One of the leaders of that unit is 250-pound senior Chad Van der Poel.

“The o-line had a good game,” Van der Poel said. “We did the simple things well. We hit hard all night. We finished our blocks. When we play like that, we’ve got some fast guys who can do really great things.”

A Salisbury avalanche was rolling. Mount Pleasant was so desperate to try to stem the tide that it gambled on fourth-and-3 at the Mount Pleasant 40. A pass by QB Ryan Tyson fell incomplete, and the Hornets were looking at a short field. Honeycutt hit Marcus Cook for 12, McLean bulled for 8, and Honeycutt ran for 10 more. McLean got the touchdown from the 3. The Hornets failed on their third straight PAT kick, but it was 18-0 with 2:56 left in the first quarter.

“As far as the defensive plan, we just wanted to smack them in the mouth first,” explained Walker, a 6-foot-3 sophomore linebacker who has D-I offers. “We wanted to make sure we attacked them, instead of waiting to be attacked.”

In the second quarter, Morgan got his scoop-and-score for 24-0. Freshman JyMikaah Wells made it 30-0 with a 7-yard scoring run. Wade Robins kicked the PAT for a 31-0 halftime lead.

As Mount Pleasant players huddled in the end zone during the break, they had to know their season was over, but they didn’t stop trying. They’d won a game the previous week against West Stanly that no one had given them a chance to win. They still believed in miracles.

“We’re actually a whole lot better than we looked out there tonight,” Johns said. “This was disappointing. We just got knocked back on our heels right from the start. We were shell-shocked.”

Salisbury tacked on an 18-yard Honeycutt-to-Patrick Taylor TD in the third quarter. Wells, big and fast at 205 pounds, broke loose from 35 yards out early in the fourth quarter for 45-0 advantage and a continuous clock.

With 6:22 remaining, the Tigers scored, following a long kickoff return. Brent Reece had productive runs to push the ball near the goal line. Tyson got the touchdown that denied the Hornets what would have been their sixth shutout.

“It’s still a good win,” Norman said. “We practiced hard for it and we were well-prepared. We knew exactly what they wanted to do offensively and our defense executed. We didn’t just stop them. We created turnovers.”

Mount Pleasant managed just 57 yards and completed only three passes. While it didn’t get a shutout, Salisbury’s defense couldn’t have controlled the game any more than it did.

Norman was the ringleader of a furious swarm that played like it still has a lot to prove.

“Jabril is always a great player and tonight he was even better than usual,” Hinson said. “Just lights out. He got after them.”

•••

NOTES: Nate Charest, one of Catawba’s all-time receivers, was in the SHS postgame locker room. One of his former Catawba teammates, Taylor Fender, coaches Salisbury’s offensive line. The Hornets have a lot of Catawba connections. Salisbury assistant Kory Fisher was one of the all-time rushing leaders for Catawba, while Hinson starred as a Catawba offensive lineman and had a stint as offensive line coach. … The QB who scored Mount Pleasant’s fourth-quarter TD is the son of Bryan Tyson, former Central Cabarrus and Mount Pleasant baseball coach and now the Cabarrus County AD. … Osborne, a junior DB who had both Mount Pleasant interceptions, is the son of Tate Osborne, former Kannapolis American Legion baseball coach. Tate coaches the Mount Pleasant defensive ends. … Only 97 points have been scored against Salisbury this season, about 8 points per game … McLean got his 13th TD, while Wells notched his 10th and 11th. They combined for 166 rushing yards, while Honeycutt had 140 rushing and 86 passing yards. … Shellhorn only had to punt twice. Both punts pinned the Tigers deep. … Johns is optimistic about 2020. He’ll have 17 returning starters.

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