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High school football: Will history-making season continue for Rowan?

If anyone tells you they walked uphill through 2 feet of snow to watch the game the last time Rowan County had three football teams in the third round of the state playoffs, don’t believe them.

It’s never happened.

We’re witnessing Rowan history here, with Salisbury (11-2), West Rowan (9-4) and North Rowan (9-3) all making the third round.

OK, it’s true North had a first-round bye and didn’t have to win two playoff games, but the Cavaliers were conference champs, so they earned that first-round bye.

All three teams had good, tough wins in the second round. West was a 12-point underdog and won on the road. Salisbury traveled to the coast and won. North won a game for the ages at home. There was just an amazing amount of grit in that one.

All three teams are underdogs on the road tonight. Salisbury has the best chance to advance.

But if you’re West, and you’ve already won twice on the road and you’ve beaten the No. 1 seed in the 3A West bracket, you’re thinking maybe you can handle the No. 5 seed, as well. Even if it is Charlotte Catholic, one of the top programs in the state. And even if you are going into one of the tougher venues in the state. I’ve been there for a playoff game. It’s crazy.

It’s Black Friday, it’s Charlotte, and traffic may be worse than horrendous, so I’d leave really early if I was trying to get to the West game.

If you’re North, well, you’re not supposed to have a chance, but you figure someone has to beat Tarboro one of these years, so it may as well be the Cavaliers.

Head coach Ben Hampton has been saying why not us all week, and North got an emotional and psychological shot in the arm Wednesday when linebacker Jordan Goodine, who makes about half of North’s tackles, was reinstated after last Friday’s ejection turned into a disqualification.

The film showed Goodine didn’t do anything to deserve ejection. The NCHSAA agreed once they looked at it. North still will be without defensive end Brandon Jefferson, however, and you don’t want to be without anyone when you’re headed to Tarboro.

The first time I saw Tarboro play was in 1984 when the Vikings came to Kannapolis for the 3A state championship game. That was before neutral-site state championship games and long before state championships were subdivided. A.L. Brown was 13-0 coming into it, had a couple of guys bound for Clemson — and never had a chance. I remember it was the coldest I’ve been in my life — colder than when I made the trip for Catawba’s playoff game in Michigan in 2001. I can’t remember if the Wonders ever made a first down. I do know they lost 20-0.  That game was the first of Tarboro’s six state titles. The school isn’t as big as used to be, probably because tobacco farming isn’t as big as it used to be, so Tarboro’s last two titles have come at the 1AA level.

***

I spent some time researching the playoff success of Rowan teams. I couldn’t remember three teams still playing this late in the year, but I’m also 64, and I started forgetting stuff when I turned 54.

As you probably remember, Rowan County went 0-fer in the state playoffs in 2017 and 2018. Rowan was 0-7 to be exact, so this sudden turnaround has been kind of fun for all of us.

In 2016, West Rowan and North Rowan both made the third round, and that’s where both went down. From 2013-15, only one Rowan team survived the first two rounds — West in 2015, East in 2014 and North in 2013.

In 2012, East lost in controversial fashion at Concord in Round 3. Salisbury survived Round 3, but fell in an unbelievable game at Ludwig Stadium to South Iredell in Round 4, also known as the regional final. I was the bad-luck charm for Rowan schools in both of those memorable contests.

In 2011, the Hornets, who really had it rolling in those days, lost in Round 3, while West lost in the state title game.

You can always argue that 2010 was the greatest season in Rowan football history and not be wrong. West and Salisbury both won state championships that year. More rings than Saturn. Carson won a playoff game that same year, but the Cougars lost in the second round.

In 2009, West won a state title. Salisbury reached Round 4. Carson and East both won in the first round, but lost in the second round. East’s second-r0und loss was at Havelock. Brian Hinson was coaching the Mustangs in those days, experience that is probably helpful now as he guides the Salisbury Hornets on long road trips.

The 2009 season was the last one in which all six Rowan schools made the playoffs. South hasn’t made it since then.

Five Rowan schools were in the playoffs in 2012. That’s the last time as many as five made it.

Back in 2000, West Rowan and North Rowan both made the third round, but the county didn’t have that strong third team.

This time the county does have that strong third team. Rowan is 5-0 in the playoffs.

•••

Thanksgiving Day marked the 50th anniversary of East Rowan’s 26-21 win against Shelby in the 1969 WNHSAA championship game, a victory that was humongous at the time for East and still is considered one of the greatest sports moments in county history. The Mustangs pushed Vietnam and the astronauts out of the Post’s front page headlines, at least for one day.

Much has been written about that team and that game, so I won’t go into great detail to revisit it, but the most amusing thing about that season was that head coach W.A. Cline got married in July, a few days before the first football practice. His bride was warned by many about marrying a football coach before the season because they were awfully hard to live with when they lost. Well, they got along fine. East never lost. The Mustangs went 13-0.

That was the only undefeated football season by a Rowan school in a 57-year period, between J.C. Price’s march to the 2A title for black schools in 1952 to West Rowan’s 16-0 run in 2009.

The penultimate game of the 1969 season, the WNCHSAA championship game, was played by East and Shelby at Ludwig Stadium to accommodate as many spectators as possible. Crowd estimates were 6,500, with fans, who couldn’t get seats, standing eight deep. They witnessed an amazing game, with Shelby taking a 21-20 lead with a touchdown and a 2-point conversion with 1:49 left on the clock. East started at its 35 after the kickoff and “drove” 65 yards in a hurry. C.M. Yates completed passes of 28, 23 and 11 yards to Johnny Yarbrough to get East to the Shelby 3. After a roughing penalty on Shelby moved the ball a yard and a half — half the distance to the goal line — Yates scored the decisive touchdown on a sneak with 1:06 remaining. Dan Lesley’s interception sealed East’s monumental victory. That was the sixth turnover of the night for East’s defense.

That 1969 East defense still holds the school points allowed record — 6.6 per game. East allowed 43 points in that 10-game regular season. When Yates missed the early games that season with a concussion, East won two close games with defense — 6-3 against South Rowan and 12-6 against West Rowan.

•••

As far as the panel of pickers,  we all wanted to pick West over Crest last week, really, we did, but only Marny Hendrick had the courage to do so. Shoutout to him. Unfortunately, he negated that brilliant pick with his A.L. Brown over Watauga selection. That one didn’t go well. Marny (54-21) was 4-1. With the West miss, I was 4-1 for 59-16 for the season. Scott Maddox (56-21) went 3-2. missing on Crest-West and Salisbury-Washington.

Tonight’s third-round games are also state quarterfinals, Marny says the winners will be Salisbury, Charlotte Catholic and Tarboro, the alma mater of former Salisbury High coach Gus Andrews. Scott Maddox is feeling negative this week. He goes with Hertford County, Catholic and Tarboro. I have to go with Catholic and Tarboro, but I’ll take the Hornets. Marny offers a bonus pick of the Tar Heels over the Wolfpack, but I’m not going to touch that one.

•••

2AA East

No. 7 Salisbury (11-2) at No. 6 Hertford County (11-2)

Hertford County is way out there.

After traveling east to beat No. 2 seed Washington last week, Salisbury now heads northeast to Ahoskie to take on Hertford’s Bears. This trip is 246 miles. Hertford is closer to Washington, D.C., than to Charlotte.

The most famous person who came from Hertford County is baseball Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter. Marvin Moore, a really good basketball player, came to Catawba College from Ahoskie, where Hertford County High is located.

The Bears, who have losses to Rocky Mount and to Currituck County, will be playing a Central Carolina Conference team for the third week in a row.

The Bears present a totally different challenge for Salisbury’s suffocating defense (8.4 points per game) than Washington did. Washington was a run-heavy, triple-option team. Hertford throws it a lot, for 217 yards per game. Hertford QB  Tye Saxby let it fly 26 times in a 28-7 win against Ledford in the first round of the playoffs and 28 times (for 263 yards) in beating North Davidson, 41-20. Saxby has thrown 35 touchdown passes.

The tough part about defending the Bears is they are balanced. They rushed for 172 yards against Ledford and for 231 against North Davidson.

The Hornets have to try to take one of those offensive dimensions away. They can usually do that with awesome defenders such as Jabril Norman, Jalon Walker and Zae Clay.

Salisbury’s defense won last week’s game quickly, coming up with a couple of turnovers for instant touchdowns.

Salisbury’s huge lead disguised the fact that the Hornets struggled on offense in the second half, but their offense is normally pretty good and pretty balanced. The Hornets will need a big game from quarterback Vance Honeycutt tonight. The rushing tandem of Mike McLean and JyMikaah Wells has produced 25 touchdowns.

The Massey Ratings list the Hornets as 6-point underdogs, with a 39 percent win probability.

•••

1AA East

No. 4 North Rowan (9-3) at No. 1 Tarboro (12-0)

If you’re a North Rowan fan, you gulped as soon as the brackets were released because you knew this was coming if the Cavaliers got this far.

Tarboro has won 42 in a row and is scary. The Vikings beat Washington, the team Salisbury played last week, 47-0.

Tarboro isn’t tricky. This is just about an all-run team, but the Vikings execute really well out of the famed Tarboro-T. Kids in Tarboro start learning that offensive system and the program’s 4-4-3 defense in elementary school.

Tarboro had Todd Gurley running the ball for them not long ago. Now it’s a committee. There’s no obvious standout, just a lot of guys who collectively have rushed for 3,257 yards and average 9.8 yards per carry. Sophomore Tobias Joyner has 14 touchdowns.

The Massey ratings give North a 0 percent win probability, yes, zero percent, and list the Cavaliers as 35-point underdogs with a score projection of 35-0. Still, this is a high school football game, and there aren’t many sure things when teenage athletes are involved.

Malcolm Wilson has scored 31 touchdowns for the Cavaliers, who run the ball 70 percent of the time. They’ll probably have to throw a lot more tonight, but that’s OK. QB Kyree Sims has improved as the season has gone along.

•••

3A West

No. 9 West Rowan (9-4) at No. 5 Charlotte Catholic (9-3)

Both teams are hot. West has won seven of eight after a 2-3 start, including last week’s win at top-seeded Crest.

Catholic’s Cougars have won seven in a row. Their 9-3 record is deceiving. There was a lopsided loss to Weddington, the defending 3AA state champ, and two losses to out-of-state national powers.

Catholic has won the last two 3A state championships and claimed the 4A state title as recently as 2015.

Catholic is a run-heavy team, coming at opponents out of the Wing-T formation. The Cougars rush for 252 yards per game. The standout is junior back Paul Neel, who has rushed for 1,580 yards and scored 19 touchdowns.

Defensively, Catholic has been good, but not overwhelming. Catholic has allowed 34 points in two playoff games. The Cougars have 21 sacks.

Everyone approaches the run-heavy Falcons the same way. Everyone tries to load the box against the run, although Jalen Houston is special and is still hard to stop.

If Cayleb Brawley (ankle) can’t go tonight, Houston will take on an even heavier workload than usual behind a powerful offensive line.

With Catholic throwing everything it has against West’s running game, opportunities are going to be there for West QB Noah Loeblein and receiver Ty’Kese Warren, who has three TD catches in the playoffs. If they can make big plays, who knows?

The Massey Ratings give West only a 7 percent chance of winning, but it should be higher than that, even at Keffer Stadium, one of the great atmospheres in the state for high school football. West is a 22-point underdog, with a projected score of 28-6, but it’s never easy to hold Houston to six. He’s scored six TDs in the playoffs.                                 

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