College football: Young teams clash for Mayor’s Cup as Catawba, Livingstone face off Saturday

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 1, 2022

By Mike London

SALISBURY— The Catawba and Livingstone football seasons will get under way on Saturday at the same time and in the same place.

For the first time since 2013, Salisbury neighbors Catawba and Livingstone will share a football field. They’ll be competing for the Mayor’s Cup, which was an important symbol of local college athletics a decade ago.

Catawba has never lost a Mayor’s Cup Game and has never lost to the Blue Bears home or road.  Catawba’s winning streak in the series, which began in the 1970s, stands at 14 in a row.

Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. at Livingstone’s historic Alumni Memorial Stadium. It’s a remodeled stadium with a completely revised look. The Blue Bears have artificial turf now, with the field painted in the distinctive light blue of the Blue Bears.

“Livingstone was the first to play in an HBCU football game (Livingstone vs.Biddle, 1892) and now we’ll be the first to play on a blue field,” Livingstone head coach Sean Gilbert said in an interview with BOXTOROW. “That’s how we operate at Livingstone.”

Normalcy is trying valiantly to make a comeback in local college football, but both programs were knocked back quite a bit during the COVID years.

Livingstone didn’t play at all in 2020, Gilbert’s first season on campus, and was 1-8 in 2021, with the only victory coming on homecoming against St. Augustine’s. The Blue Bears were one play away from winning two others.

Catawba battled COVID issues in 2020 and 2021.

Catawba was 3-0 and rolling early in the 2021 season when it was shut down by COVID for two weeks. Catawba resumed play with a shaky win against Carson-Newman to get to 4-0, but it eventually limped home with a final record of 5-4 that didn’t feel very much like a winning season.

Those last two weeks, an unexpected loss to UVa Wise and a 56-3 blowout at the hands of rival Lenoir-Rhyne, were disastrous in every respect.

“We were undefeated and playing well and getting ready for a big game with Wingate,” Catawba head coach Curtis Walker said. “Prior to the Wingate game, we had our best week of practice, and I knew we were ready. But then being shut down two weeks, it was hard to maintain momentum. We experienced an emotional roller coaster, and we didn’t finish the season the way we wanted to. The positive is we learned to deal with lots of adversity and we’ve had time now to get that focus back. Guys have worked very hard.”

Livingstone returns running back Andre Harris and quarterback Lazarus Anderson to lead the offense.

“We’re not asking Anderson to be prolific,” Gilbert said. “We’re asking him to manage the game, read the box, understand the coverages. We’re asking him to minimize mistakes.”

A focus for the Blue Bears’ offense is improving red zone efficiency.  There were 163 D-II teams last season, and the Blue Bears ranked 163rd in red zone scoring.

On 15 trips to the red zone, Livingstone managed only three TDs and two field goals and came up empty 10 times. That will get you beat.

Livingstone will be young on the offensive line and in the defensive backfield.

Linebacking and the defensive line are expected to be the Blue Bears’ strongest position groups.

Livingstone’s defense was solid last season and kept the Blue Bears in games. The Blue Bears ranked 16th in D-II in yards allowed.

‘The motto for the defense now is from No. 16 to No. 1,” Gilbert said.

Catawba’s best-known returning player is Clayton Crile, one of the nation’s top punters.

With Ken Avent III not returning, the Indians will have a new quarterback. Walker declined to name a starter, an indication that there’s been a close competition for the job. Catawba added a pair of QBs who had been reserves in D-I programs at Charlotte and South Florida.

Slot Kujuan Pyror figures to be the go-t0 guy for Catawba’s offense.

“He’s the pulse of our offense,” Walker said. “I think he’s very underrated by everyone. One heck of a player.”

The Indians can count on Daniel Parker to be steady in the running game. Cameron Ivey-Young and Kanyon James provide a commanding presence and a lot of leadership on the offensive line.

Defensive leaders for the Indians are expected to be cornerback Izaiah Taylor, lineman Mike Jones and linebacker Christian Bennett, the former East Rowan star.

“Bennett is the general on the defense and we want to hear him speaking on every play,” Walker said.

The Indians didn’t get much respect in All-South Atlantic Conference postseason or preseason accolades, but that’s always good motivation.

Walker can use it.

Both teams are really young, much younger than usual. Catawba is heavy on sophomores, while LC is heavy on freshmen.

“Everyone wants a right-now team, but we’ve still got some growing to do,” Gilbert said. “We’re planting seeds for a very good program.”

It should be an exciting game on Saturday as the local colleges make the move back to being football partners. Both teams have plenty of motivation to win the Mayor’s Cup.

“We’re looking forward to the friendly competition,” Walker said. “We know we’ll run into obstacles, and we know we’ll have to dig down deep at times, but that’s when you get better as a team. That’s the plan for this season — to keep building and getting better every week.”