High school football playoffs: North Rowan refuses to break

Published 8:35 am Saturday, November 23, 2019

By Mike London

SPENCER— There were dozens of violent collisions as North Rowan and Princeton scrapped, but it was a 1AA East playoff game that ultimately was decided by one odd bounce.

North Rowan created the break it needed and won, 26-14.

It was the Cavaliers’ ninth straight victory. Next they’ll play No. 1 seed Tarboro on the road. Tarboro has won 42 in a row, but whatever happens out in Edgecombe County next week, North will savor Friday’s physical victory for years.

Trailing 20-14 and forced to start at their 6-yard line after a sweet punt by North Rowan DB Jaharion Graham, Princeton’s Bulldogs (10-2) launched a furious, fourth-quarter march that appeared destined to win the game for them, 21-20.  Battering their way through depleted Cavaliers, who were minus standout linebacker Jordan Goodine and towering defensive end Brandon Jefferson, Princeton rammed the ball out to its 25, and then to midfield, and then to the North 30, as the scoreboard clock at Eagle Stadium ticked down. Eight minutes left, seven minutes, six minutes. No. 5 seed Princeton’s ancient single-wing offense, operating with precision and power and mixing in just enough stealth to keep the Cavaliers (9-3) honest, looked unstoppable.

“Bend, bend, bend, but never break,” North defensive lineman Malachi “Meatball” Turner kept reciting to himself. That’s a familiar defensive mantra, but the Cavaliers were running out of bending room. Princeton reached the North 15, first and 10, with the clock approaching the five-minute mark.

Blake Raynor, one of several Bulldogs who alternated taking direct snaps in the single wing, accepted one more. His teammates cleared a decent path on the right side, but as he ripped through it and got to the 10, the ball suddenly flew loose. Graham forced the fumble. The ball sailed high in the air and a little bit forward.  Waiting for it to come down, in just the right place at just the right time, was North safety Xzaviar “Zay” Davis, one of the fastest men on the field.

“I didn’t know who knocked it loose,” Davis said. “But I saw that ball coming right at me, and I started thinking about going all the way. I started thinking that this year we’re not getting stopped in Round 2.”

Turner was on the ground, writhing in pain. He’d been fantastic all night, a mighty brick wall against runs up the middle, but he’d had his legs taken out on that run and his entire, 300-pound body had been whipped around savagely. He heard a roar and thought maybe Princeton had scored. But the Bulldogs hadn’t.

“I’m on the ground looking up, and then I see Zay’s got the ball and he’s coming fast the other way,” Turner said. “That made me feel better.”

There was a block in the back that negated part of Davis’ wild return, but when the dust settled, North owned the ball at the Princeton 25. The Cavaliers punched in the clinching score from there. North’s offensive star, Malcolm Wilson, was fighting cramps, so it was Davis who made the 3-yard carry with 3:50 left that made it 26-14.

“All kinds of adversity, but we just would not let adversity beat us tonight,” Turner said with a smile.

Fourth-seeded North wrote a few books on adversity.

North was supposed to have a speed advantage, but Princeton’s Jaydon Brooks wasted no time in tearing up the scouting report. On the first play from scrimmage, he slashed around the left corner and bolted 75 yards down the home sideline for a 7-0 lead. After North stopped itself with two holding penalties, Princeton’s offense went to work again. The Bulldogs finished that second possession with well-rehearsed trickery. It was 14-0. North fans were antsy, to say the least.

“We knew this was not going to be easy,” North head coach Ben Hampton said. “Princeton is good. They’re strong. They’re really, really big. And we were sloppy. We were getting penalties and dropping passes. Kyree (Sims) threw it well, but we weren’t catching them. We really thought we’d be able to exploit Princeton more with the pass than we did.”

North might have been knocked out early, but North has Wilson.

Down two TDs and with desperation starting to creep in after North was buried at its 15-yard line on Princeton’s kickoff, Wilson put it all on his shoulders. He made a wonderful run for his 30th TD of the season. There wasn’t a major hole, but he broke tackle after tackle. Then he out-sprinted people. His 85-yard score late in the first quarter made it 14-6, and changed a lot. It brought hope to the North sideline.

“No, it didn’t look good at 14-0,” North center Kendall Reid said. “But when Malcolm broke that run, we knew we could score on those guys. Everyone said, yes, we can do this. Everyone buckled down.”

More adversity was coming. Goodine, North’s leading tackler, was gone early the second quarter, dismissed by officials for “unsportsmanlike conduct.”

Hampton said the explanation he was given was Goodine led with his helmet on a tackle.  North will appeal, will send film to the NCHSAA in hopes of getting Goodine back for the Tarboro trip. Hampton’s hope is that it will be a DQ (done for the night) as opposed to an ejection (out for this one and the next).

“Jordan is not a kid who ever gets a personal foul,” Hampton said. “He’s the last person who would ever do anything malicious.”

Goodine jogged to the locker room, but as tough a blow as that was for North’s defense against an all-run team, it also proved a rallying point. Khalil Davis, Zay’s little brother, came in to replace Goodine.

“I told Khalil he had to do this, that we couldn’t do this without him,” Zay Davis said. “He’s a freshman, but he did great.”

As the second quarter unfolded, North’s defense was stopping an unstoppable offense.

Late in the half, Tyshon Sifford refused to go down on a run that looked like it wasn’t going very far. Instead, he got 20 yards and a bruising touchdown. Sims’ crafty two-point conversion run tied it at 14-all with 1:48 left in the half. Princeton got some yards, but didn’t have enough time to retaliate.

“It’s 14-all at halftime, and we’ve got the momentum and we’re getting the ball first to start the second half,” Wilson said. “We all knew this was a huge possession. We had the momentum, but we had to keep it. We did a good job of staying grounded, of keeping our heads. We scored.”

Wilson did a lot. He lugged the second-half kickoff to the North 40. Then Sims made a great throw and Sifford made a greater catch. It was a 45-yard pass play that put North in scoring position at the Princeton 15. Wilson got touchdown No. 31 for the lead, slicing into the end zone from the 11-yard line. The Cavaliers, once down 14-0, led 20-14.

To hold that precarious lead, North had to rely on a defense that would stand up not only without Goodine, but without Jefferson. Jefferson raised a verbal objection that was deemed “unsportsmanlike” after he was flagged. That objection got him a second flag. He, too, was banished.

But North’s patchwork defense hung together.

When Princeton had fourth-and-3 at the North 26, it was Zay Davis who came flying up to make the crushing stop short of the sticks.

“We knew their stuff,” he said. “We worked on it for two straight weeks.”

North, which enjoyed a first-round bye while Princeton was pulverizing an overmatched first-round opponent, stopped the Bulldogs again at the North 37 on a fourth-and-2. Still 20-14.

“The offense Princeton runs, they’re great at it, and they’re going to get a lot of yards,” Hampton said.  “We knew we were going to have to bend a lot.”

North had chances to expand its lead, but there were too many penalties (North had 14 for 147 yards) to sustain a drive. With the Cavaliers stalled at the Princeton 43 in the early stages of the fourth quarter, Hampton sent in Graham to punt. That’s when he sent it down to the Princeton 6.

“We don’t have a true punter,” Hampton said. “So we snap it to a great athlete, and he does his best.”

Graham’s boot set the stage for that long Princeton drive that chewed up almost 90 yards, but ended in frustration and Davis’ fumble recovery and return.

After Davis’ touchdown put North ahead 26-14 with 3:50 left, Princeton had to try to throw. Jyrik Scott made an athletic breakup when a Bulldog looked to be open deep. Nashid Taab charged through for a sack.

Led by Brooks, Princeton rolled up 372 rushing yards, but just 14 points, none after those first two possessions.

With the help of that 85-yard gem, Wilson rambled for 207 yards on 18 carries for the Cavaliers.

“Just a huge win for our team — for our program,” Hampton said. “Sure, we can play better, but as far as the intensity and the effort, I couldn’t be more proud.”


NOTES: Losing coach Travis Gaster, who starred at Albemarle High, has deep family ties to North Rowan. .. H.K. Gaster, his mother, served as assistant principal and later principal at North Rowan in the 1990s and early 2000s. His brother, Guy, played soccer for the Cavaliers and graduated from North. … Travis’ late father, Jack, coached Albemarle against North Rowan in that epic 1994 struggle when both teams were 10-0 going into the final game of the regular season. Albemarle won that one in OT.