DURHAM — It took all of 11 seconds to recognize the importance of experience on the big stage.
Northampton was making its first appearance in an NCHSAA state championship game. The Jaguars were matched against top-seeded Robbinsville, making its 17th appearance in the championship game and seeking its 14th state title.
Coaches and fans like to say, “Act like you’ve been there before,” but that’s tough to do when you haven’t.
Robbinsville kicked off with a short sky kick that took Northampton by surprise. It bounced off a Jaguars up man, and Clayson Lane of the Black Knights fell on it.
“We tried to play through that type of adversity early,” said Northampton coach George Privott. “Fumble on the kick return — they kind of flipped it on us and played our style of football. We always kick onside or short kicks.”
It was the first of three straight Robbinsville drives that started on Northampton’s side of the field. By the time the ball was snapped for the first time by either team in Black Knights territory, the first quarter was over and Robbinsville was on its way to going up three scores en route to a 45-14 win.
“They had that Power I and ran it right at us,” Privott said. “Bully Ball, we call it. They kind of did us to us.”
Robbinsville’s Bully Ball was keyed by running back Rylee Anderson, who scored the first three touchdowns of the game. On the Black Knights’ opening trio of scoring drives, Anderson ran the ball on 14 of 17 Robbinsville plays, gaining 99 yards.
Anderson finished the game with 176 yards and five rushing touchdowns.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” he said afterward. “I guess God let me do it, and my (offensive) line.”
The performance put Anderson over 2,000 yards for the second time in his career. He finishes as the all-time leading rusher in Smoky Mountain Conference history.
As if that wasn’t enough, Anderson also had three tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass breakup at safety, winning the game’s Most Valuable Player Award by a unanimous vote and leading the NCHSAA to give a ruling on whether one player could win the MVP, offensive and defensive honors for the title game. (They can, but it was discouraged.)
Instead, fellow running back Lex Hooper won the offensive award after rushing for 125 yards and a score.
Xavier Rattler (five tackles, one tackle for loss) took defensive honors. For Northampton, quarterback Zion Kendall was the offensive player of the game, passing for one score and running for another, while Ja’Vonte Scott (15 tackles) was the top defensive player.
Robbinsville held Northampton to three yards in the first half, and negative three on the ground, on its way to a 45-14 win, a perfect 15-0 record and the state 1A title, the 14th in school history.
“I’m very proud that we finished what we started,” coach Dee Walsh said. “There’s a lot of really good people over there that do everything they can to help our kids be successful, and our kids believe in that, understand it and take pride in who they are. They go out and do the best they can and play with a lot of heart. … We may not have the biggest, strongest, best athletes, but our kids play above their level. They’re mountain boys, and they have a lot of heart.”
Tough start to the game aside, it’s a level that Northampton is close to reaching.
“We’re proud of our guys for making it this far,” Privott said. “We’ve struggled, probably the last six years, getting past the third round. We finally got past that this year. We’re very proud of what our kids accomplished this year. They raised the bar.”
While they may not have the mountain toughness of Robbinsville, Northampton is building the community support that comes with a successful high school team.
“We’ve been a consolidated high school since 2012,” Privott said, “but we still didn’t feel like we were that one community. We still felt like East and West. I think this year, after the middle school team’s success and the high school team’s success, it feels a lot more like one community.”
Privott and the community have also constructed the infrastructure to help feed players through to his team.
“We’ve got a real bright future,” he said. “The middle school — we’ve got a bunch of kids that are coming over, and our little league teams are to the point where all of them are running my same system, so when they get to me, they know it.”
After getting its feet wet, next time Northampton reaches the title game, it will be ready for the big stage.
Reidsville shuts out Northeastern for 2A title
WINSTON-SALEM — For the second straight season, Reidsville met Northeastern for the state 2A title and, for the second straight season, Reidsville took the crown.
The Rams had a bit of an easier road this time around, topping Northeastern 14-0 after a come-from-behind 31-28 nail-biter last year.
Reidsville had been riding an explosive offense that was averaging 51.4 points per game entering Saturday’s showdown at Wake Forest’s BB&T Field, including a 63-13 blowout of West Stokes in the regional final.
The Eagles were able to contain the Reidsville offense, forcing the Rams to grind things out.
Reidsville dominated the game on the ground, gaining 213 yards and rushing for both scores in the contest. Lionel Long rushed 31 times for 156 yards and the game’s first touchdown, earning MVP honors. Stevion Harrison led Reidsville’s defensive effort with two sacks and three tackles for loss, while Jaden Robinson had an interception.
Reidsville capped a 15-1 season and won its 18th state title in its 24th appearance in the title game. Northeastern finished 12-4 and is still seeking its first title after three trips to the championship game.
Record-setting Shelby defense secures 2AA title over Salisbury
WINSTON-SALEM — Shelby’s defense put the clamps on Salisbury in the 2AA state championship game at Wake Forest’s BB&T Field, leading the Golden Lions to a 34-0 win for their 11th state title in school history.
Shelby held Salisbury to negative six rushing yards in the game, third-fewest in state championship history, and Salisbury’s 39 total yards against the Shelby defense was a record for the title game, breaking the 46 yards Robbinsville allowed 27 years ago. It had been the oldest record still on the books for the NCHSAA championship game.
Ja’hari Mitchell was the offensive star for Shelby, rushing for three touchdowns and passing for another. Teammate Donye Fuller rushed for 103 yards, and quarterback Isaiah Bess passed for 212 yards and a score.
The Shelby defense was the story of the day, however. The Golden Lions had 10 tackles for loss, five sacks, two interceptions and seven pass breakups. Salisbury had six straight three-and-out drives (one had a failed fourth-down attempt, and another had a third-down interception) and had just two drives in the game of longer than five plays.
Shelby finished 14-1 and earned its 11 championship in its 16th trip to the title game. Salisbury suffered its first loss in the championship game in four trips.
East Surry stuns Tarboro in 1AA rematch
DURHAM — What a difference a year makes. Last season, Tarboro met East Surry in the state title game and rolled to a 50-10 victory, outrushing the Cardinals 442 to 0.
The Vikings entered this year’s championship rematch 14-0, winners of 44 straight and looking to win their third straight championship.
East Surry served notice early on that things would be different this time around. The Cardinals scored 71 seconds into the game and erupted for 21 points in the second quarter to cruise to a 56-28 win over Tarboro. It was the first state title for East Surry in just its second appearance in the title game.
UNC commit Jefferson Boaz passed for a state championship game record 478 yards on 33-of-42 passing for East Surry. His seven touchdown strikes were also a title game record, and his 475 yards of total offense are second-most all time in a championship game.
Fellow UNC commit Stephen Gosnell had 206 yards on a title game record 13 catches. Landon Stevens had 179 on 10 catches. Both had two touchdown receptions, while Dillon Mosley tied a title game record with three.
The passing outburst negated Tarboro’s 242-to-28 advantage on the ground and secured a 15-0 season for East Surry.