Prep football nears May conclusion with title games

The season, delayed in the fall due to the pandemic, will come to a close with eight championship games this week

Members of the Vance High School football team celebrate after the Cougars won the NCHSAA 4AA state football title with a 24-3 win Saturday over Raleigh’s Leesville Road at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

The term “spring football’ takes on new meaning this weekend when the N.C. High School Athletic Association holds its state championship games in Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

Titles in eight subdivisions will be up for grabs as a climax to an abbreviated season shifted from its traditional fall schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The games will feature many of the usual suspects. Four of the eight champions from 2019 are back to defend their titles, while three runners-up have returned looking to come home with the trophy this time. There are also three teams — Rolesville, Cleveland and St. Pauls — making their first appearance in a state final.

Here’s the rundown on this year’s title matchups.

4AA: Vance vs. Rolesville
Saturday, 5 p.m., Carter-Finley Stadium

Wake Forest-Rolesville played for the 4AA title in 2010. Three years later, the schools split. While Wake Forest went on to win three state championships, upstart Rolesville had never beaten its new rival until this year — including a 24-21 double-overtime victory last week that sent the Rams (9-0) to their first state final in any sport. Quarterback Byrum Brown has thrown for 1,879 yards and 20 touchdowns.

While Rolesville is saying hello to the big stage, Vance, the defending state champion, is saying goodbye. The Charlotte school will be renamed for civil rights leader Julius L. Chambers this fall. The Cougars (9-1) are a veteran crew led by quarterback Austin Grier. But they have also added some new firepower in sophomore Daylan Smothers, who ran for 170 yards and two scores last week against Myers Park.

4A: Grimsley vs. Cardinal Gibbons
Friday, 7 p.m., Kenan Stadium

In one of two matchups of undefeated teams, the Crusaders (9-0) look to redeem themselves after falling just short of their first state title in a 2019 loss to East Forsyth. Gibbons is powered by a defense that has recorded an incredible 75.5 tackles for loss, including 25.5 by lineman John Caramanico. Running backs Donovan Shepard and Brock Biestek are the top offensive weapons.

Whirlies quarterback Alonza Barnett was sacked six times and intercepted twice in last week’s West region final against Butler, but he also threw for touchdowns of 58 and 49 yards while also running for a 26-yard score to lift Grimsley (9-0) into its first state title game since 2005.

3AA: Mount Tabor vs. Cleveland
Thursday, 7 p.m., Kenan Stadium

The second matchup of undefeated teams features two programs looking for their first state title. While Mount Tabor (10-0) has come close before, losing in the final in both 2003 and ’07, Cleveland (10-0) has advanced to the title game for the first time in school history.

The Spartans are a physical team that overwhelmed the competition during the regular season with four wins by 40 points or more but has also proven its ability to win close games in the playoffs — including Friday’s come-from-behind 24-20 victory against Dudley in the West region final.

The Rams, whose school opened its doors in 2011,  also rallied from an early deficit to beat rival Clayton 49-21 behind 258 passing yards, 111 rushing yards and four touchdowns from junior quarterback Skyler Locklear.

3A: Charlotte Catholic vs. Havelock
Friday, 7 p.m., Carter-Finley Stadium

Two perennial powerhouses meet up in a rematch of the 2017 championship game. Charlotte Catholic won that matchup, the first of its four consecutive state title victories.

This year’s Cougars (8-1) are a veteran unit that has allowed an average of just 11 points per game with three shutouts. They forced three turnovers in last week’s 24-14 win against Monroe. Senior Paul Neel is the top offensive threat with five 100-yard rushing efforts on the way to 1,044 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Havelock (10-0) will provide a stiff challenge thanks to the passing of sophomore Andrew Frazier, the running of senior Kamarro Edwards and a defense that has produced 28 sacks and 12 interceptions. Although the Rams have made only one state championship final over the past six years, they played in four straight — winning three titles — from 2011-14.

2AA: Salisbury vs. St. Pauls
Thursday, 7 p.m., Carter-Finley Stadium

Salisbury played for the state title in 2019 but was anything but a favorite to return to the final as a seventh seed in the West this year. The Hornets (8-2) upset their way through the bracket by beating No. 2 Maiden in the opening round then rallying in the fourth quarter to upset top-seeded North Davidson 24-20 on a 22-yard field goal by Wade Robbins with 1:09 remaining.

St. Pauls (8-0) had to overcome a COVID-19 outbreak that forced it to cancel its first three games. The Bulldogs, making their first state final appearance, rely heavily on a stout defense and a ground game that features a 1,000-yard rusher in KeMarion Baldwin.

2A: Mountain Heritage vs. Reidsville
Saturday, 5 p.m., Kenan Stadium

The Rams (9-0) are looking for their third straight title in their fifth consecutive appearance in the 2A final. Senior quarterback Kyle Pinnix is the trigger man for Reidsville’s balanced offense that also includes all-state wide receiver Breon Pass, who is also an all-state point guard signed to play for NC State.

Mountain Heritage (7-1) is playing for a title for the first time since 2009. The Cougars punched their ticket with a dramatic 30-29 victory against Hendersonville in which they stopped a two-point conversion attempt in overtime.

1AA: East Surry vs. Tarboro
Saturday, noon, Kenan Stadium

The Cardinals (9-1) and Vikings (8-0) meet for the third straight 1AA final, with each team having won once.

East Surry won’t have dynamic quarterback Jefferson Boaz, who set a championship game record by throwing for 478 yards and accounting for eight touchdowns in its 2019 win against Tarboro. But it will have his younger brother Folger, a sophomore who has thrown for 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns.

The Cardinals will likely have to put up a big number against an equally explosive Tarboro offense that has scored 62 or more points in each of its postseason wins. The Vikings, state champions in both 2017 and ’18, are powered by a ground attack with four backs that average better than 10 yards per carry and a defense that has forced 22 turnovers.

1A: Murphy vs. Northside-Pinetown
Saturday, noon,
Carter-Finley Stadium

Murphy (9-1) avenged a loss in the 2019 West final and its only regular-season defeat by beating defending state champion Robbinsville 24-14 on Friday in a game that saw the backfield duo of Ty Laney and Ray Rathburn combine for 260 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.

Seeded fifth in the East, Northside (8-2) has averaged 42 points per game in its three playoff victories, including a 47-6 drubbing of defending state runner-up Northampton County on Friday to advance to its first state final since 2000. Like Murphy, the Panthers do most of their damage on the ground with James Gorham (248 yards, four TDs), Mitch Godley (164 yards, one TD) and Tyler Modlin (66 yards, two TDs) accounting for all their team’s yardage in the region final.