Salisbury’s fabulous season ends with loss in title game

Published 12:10 am Sunday, December 15, 2019

By Mike London

WINSTON-SALEM — Shelby, a football machine from a football town, played with supreme confidence at Wake Forest’s BB&T Stadium on Saturday.

Leading 7-0 and facing fourth-and-2 at the Shelby 39 late in the first quarter, the Lions went for it against Salisbury’s steel-ribbed defense, and no one does that against the Hornets.

Shelby (14-1) easily gained 6 yards with a routine running play to move the chains, and no one does that against Salisbury, either.

That fourth-and-2 conversion was the pivotal moment in a 16-play, 69-yard drive that lifted the Lions’ lead to 13-0. That drive took five minutes and took some starch and vinegar out of Salisbury. When that march was concluded in the end zone, Shelby was well on its way to an emphatic 34-0 victory over the Hornets, and its second straight 2AA state championship.

“We were as well-prepared for this game as any that we’ve played all year,” said Salisbury linebacker Jalon Walker, who made nine tackles and broke up a pass. “We had great practices every day leading up to it. Great walk-throughs. But our execution today didn’t match our preparation.”

Salisbury back Mike McLean rushed times 12 times for 22 yards and was voted the Hornets’ “Most Outstanding Offensive Player” by sportswriters, which tells you all you need to know about the day Salisbury’s offense had.

“Their defensive line just got off the ball so quick,” said McLean, whose best moment was a 49-yard kickoff return. “We fought, we did our best, but our offensive line hadn’t faced anyone like that.”

Quarterback Vance Honeycutt needed only 60 yards coming into the game to break Salisbury’s passing record for a single season. He didn’t get there. He was held to 45. He was 7-for-21 with two interceptions. Not that it was all on him. Honeycutt was running for his life as soon as he took a snap and was sacked five times.

Patrick Taylor, who broke the single-season record for receptions by a Hornet that had been held by Craig Cesario since 1989, came into the game with 43 catches. He got one more against Shelby — for 6 yards.

The Hornets’ most explosive offensive play all afternoon, in a decent-weather game on a turf field, was 11 yards.

“Shelby won this game at the line of scrimmage,” Salisbury coach Brian Hinson said. “That’s where they beat us. They’re just a really good football team. Our defense played well for the most part, but we left them on the field way too much and we gave Shelby a lot of short fields.”

The first short field Salisbury offered the Lions — after a bad snap on a punt — put Shelby at the Salisbury 34 and led directly to a 7-0 deficit.

Salisbury’s golden chance to seize momentum came on the opening kickoff. Shelby’s Kamarde Huskey fielded Josh Portillo’s kick at his 13 and made his way up the Shelby sideline. At the 30, he tried to truck Salisbury receiver Marcus Cook, but Cook stood his ground. The ball popped out in the collision that occurred and Salisbury reserve defensive lineman Brandon Broadway came up with it. Salisbury had an instant turnover.

Short flips by Honeycutt to Taylor and Cook moved the Hornets to the Shelby 19, first-and-10. But that’s where the Lions stopped budging. Two straight runs were negative. After a third-down sack, the Hornets were looking at fourth-and-24 at the Shelby 33 — and punting.

“That was a great opportunity wasted,” Hinson said. “Shelby doesn’t slip up much, so when they do, you have to take advantage of it. We didn’t.”

Salisbury’s defense creamed Shelby’s second possession, with Walker and Blaine Shellhorn stuffing a second-down run and Zae Clay storming through to sack Shelby QB Isaiah Bess on third-and-long. That was one of three first-half sacks registered by Clay, the Central Carolina Conference’s lineman of the year. Clay earned Salisbury’s “Most Outstanding Defensive Player” award.

“I was just using my hands, fighting, going as hard as I could,” Clay said. “They double-teamed me some in the second half, but I kept competing.”

But Salisbury’s offense (1-for-10 on third-down conversions) was being so overmatched by Shelby’s defense that it was only a matter of time before the SHS defense started to show cracks as well.

With 5:19 left in the first half, the Golden Lions made a big play with their passing game. Bess threw deep down the Salisbury sideline to Diavonni Daley. Daley made the grab at the 7 and spun away from defenders for the TD that made it 20-0 at the break.

Salisbury’s last realistic chance to make things exciting came on the opening possession of the second half. The Hornets had to make something happen there, and they tried.

JyMikaah Wells returned Shelby’s kickoff to the 35. From there, the Hornets strung together four straight positive running plays, three by McLean and one by Honeycutt. On fourth-and-4 at the Shelby 45, there wasn’t much  doubt the Hornets were going for it, and Walker got the first down with an 8-yard carry.

But that’s where that drive stalled. The killer play for the Hornets was the loss of 6 on a second-down running play.

“Our defensive play was relentless,” Shelby coach Mike Wilbanks said.

A fumble recovery by Shellhorn gave the Hornets one last shot, but on fourth-and-5 at the Shelby 38, Honeycutt was sacked by stud linebacker Jack Hollifield.

When Shelby rolled 54 yards for the touchdown that made it 27-0 in the final seconds of the third quarter, it was all over, but the Lions would tack on one more TD in the final period on a pass out of “Wildcat” formation by game MVP Mitchell, who scored three short rushing touchdowns, to tight end Nick Stites.

With all those sacks and that disaster on the punt snap, the Hornets wound up with negative rushing yards. They made just five first downs.

Shelby, on the other hand, pounded out 138 rushing yards and threw for 221.

“Very tough day,” Walker said. “But still a great day.”

McLean and Clay echoed Walker’s positive attitude. In August, no one expected Salisbury to make it anywhere near this far. In September, when Honeycutt was injured, no one expected much at all. Seeded seventh for the playoffs as a conference runner-up meant an almost impossible climb through the 2AA East playoff bracket, but the Hornets traveled more than a thousand miles, beat three strong teams on the road, and were still standing tall on Saturday.

“We played on the last day of the season, and I feel good about that,” McLean said. “We’ll be back.”

They might be. Fourteen starters will return, including eight on offense.  Senior linebacker Jabril Norman brought so much leadership that he’ll be hard to replace, but McLean, Honeycutt, Walker, Clay and Jaden Gaither, who made 11 tackles on Saturday, are among those who aren’t seniors.

The Hornets ended their season at 13-3, tying the school record for victories established by the 2010 state champions. Only three teams in Rowan County history — West Rowan in 2008, 2009 and 2010 — won more than 13 games in a season.

“This little journey we took together, just a great ride,” Hinson said. “Tremendously proud of the season our guys had.”