NCHSAA Football Championships: Cardinal Gibbons brings state title back to Raleigh

The NCHSAA crowned four champions in games in Raleigh and Chapel Hill over the weekend

Cardinal Gibbons running back Donovan Shepard rushed for 119 yards in the Crusanders' 14-2 win over Chambers in the NCHSAA 4A state football championship game Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

RALEIGH – Cardinal Gibbons coach Steven Wright received several encouraging phone calls and emails in the week leading up to his team’s NCHSAA 4A state football championship game against Chambers High School on Saturday.

One came from an unexpected source, a member of the 1970 Broughton High team that was the most recent squad from Raleigh to win a state football title.

“Go win one for Raleigh,” the message said.

“It reminded me of the 51‑year hiatus for Raleigh proper,” Wright said. “There have been a lot of cities that had a lot of success over the years, and it’s nice to bring one back home.”

The Crusaders did just that on Saturday, overcoming both the defending state champion Chambers Cougars and a torrential downpour that turned the field at Carter-Finley Stadium into a swamp to win the first state crown in school history.

Quarterback Connor Clark connected with game MVP Maverick Shotwell for two long touchdown passes and the Crusaders defense shut down a powerful Chambers attack for a 14-2 victory in one of four title games held last weekend.

Shelby wide receiver Ja’Keith Hamilton leaps for a touchdown reception over Wallace-Rose Hill defender Reid Page during the Golden Lions’ 55-34 win in the NCHSAA 2A state football championship game Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Dudley defeated J.H. Rose 69-40 in a high-scoring 3A final, while Shelby pulled away in the second half to outscore Wallace-Rose Hill 55-34 in the 2A game. Tarboro successfully defended its 1A championship with a 25-7 victory against Mitchell County.

Gibbons’ win didn’t just end a half-century drought for the state’s capital city, it also completed a three-year journey for the Crusaders, who fell short in the 4A final in each of the past two seasons.

The fact the game was played across the street from Gibbons’ campus, with a large contingent of family, fans and fellow students in the stands, made it all the more special. The team walked to the game rather than riding on buses.

“There was such a close distance between us and the school, we knew we could create almost a home environment for what was essentially supposed to be a neutral game,” said senior running back Donovan Shepard, who gained 76 of his game-high 119 rushing yards in the fourth quarter to help his team salt away the victory. “That helped give us a lot of momentum.”


The Crusaders (14-2) cashed in on that momentum with a pair of scoring passes from Clark to Shotwell.

The first came on a 34-yard strike late in the first quarter just before the monsoon-like conditions hit. The second came after the rain stopped just after halftime — a 74-yard connection on which Shotwell adjusted his route to get a step on his defender.

Chambers scored its only points on a safety created by a bad punt snap by Cardinal Gibbons during the height of the storm.

The Cougars (14-2) threatened to score later in the second quarter when star running back Daylan Smothers broke free for a 56-yard gain. But he was stopped at the 5-yard line when Blake Raphael ran him down from behind. One play later, Chambers turned the ball over on a bad snap of its own.

Smothers finished the game with 91 rushing yards on a night in which his team could only manage 114 total yards. Afterward, Smothers admitted that the Cougars — who won the past two 4AA titles under their school’s former name, Vance – did a better job of dealing with the messy conditions than he and his teammates.

“The conditions were bad, but at the end of the day it’s football and you’ve got to deal with it. You’ve got to play through it,” he said. “It’s wet out there, your feet get heavy and cold. They just had bigger plays than we did.”

2A: Shelby 55, Wallace-Rose Hill 34

Sophomore quarterback Daylin Lee passed for 313 yards and five touchdowns, and Marquis Adams scored four times to lead Shelby to the 2A championship, its 12th state title and third in the past four seasons.

“That has been a journey,” Shelby coach Mike Wilbanks said of a title quest that began last spring, three days after a second-round playoff loss to Hendersonville. “This is our 25th game of 2021, so to go from April 26 right after we played a nine-game season, get right back to work, go right back into June, seven-on-sevens, hit August wide open and to make this 16-game run … I’m so happy for them.”

Players on the Wallace-Rose Hill football team hold up the jerseys of four teammates who weren’t able to play in Saturday’s NCHSAA 2A state football championship game against Shelby due to COVID-19. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

As tumultuous as the past year has been for Shelby, it’s been just as challenging for Wallace-Rose Hill, which was seeking its first state championship since 2017.

The Bulldogs were faced with an added obstacle this week when four of their players — senior wide receiver James Smith, senior tackle/nose guard Tylique Hall, sophomore Deashawn Taylor and freshman linebacker Irvin Brown — tested positive for COVID-19 and weren’t able to make the trip to Raleigh.

Despite the absences, Wallace-Rose Hill (13-3) held its own for the first two quarters.

With star Kanye Roberts rushing for the first four of his five touchdowns, the Bulldogs matched Shelby score-for-score until the Golden Lions (15-1) punched it in with 11 seconds remaining in the half to take a 34-27 lead.

But while Shelby adjusted to Wallace-Rose Hill’s wing-T offense in the second half, the Bulldogs had no answer for their opponent’s passing attack. The Golden Lions scored three unanswered touchdowns to start the second half — two on Adams runs and one on a 42-pass from Lee to Adams – to break the game open.

3A: Dudley 69, J.H. Rose 40

CHAPEL HILL – Michael Shaw ran for 191 yards and quarterback Jahmier Slade scored three rushing touchdowns to lead the Panthers from Greensboro to the 3A state championship at Kenan Stadium in the highest-scoring state final in NCHSAA history.

Dudley’s 69 points were also a state record for a single team in a neutral site state title game.

The Panthers (14-2) got off to a flying start by scoring touchdowns the first three times they touched the ball, including a 79-yard run by Shaw.

Rose (11-5) answered back with a 13-yard pass from Will Taylor to Jayden Grimes and a 59-yard interception return by Jameer Roach to get back into contention and trailed only 27-14 with less than a minute remaining in the half.

But Dudley scored twice in the final 43 seconds before halftime, on a 5-yard run by Mehki Wall and a 14-yard pass to Slade from R.J. Baker surrounded by a fumbled kickoff, to open up some separation and cruise to its sixth state title and first since 2016.

“We’ve been doing that all year, so it was very expected,” Wall said of the late first-half surge. “Against us, the best team in the state, teams don’t always fold under the pressure, so that’s what we had to do — keep putting our foot on their necks.”

1A: Tarboro 25, Mitchell County 7

CHAPEL HILL – The Vikings (14‑1) won their second state championship this calendar year and fourth in the past five seasons by riding the punishing running of Tobias Joyner to victory in the NCHSAA 1A title game at Kenan Stadium on Saturday.

“This one, being with these guys, is special because of the group that I have,” Tarboro coach Jeff Craddock said. “I just love seeing these guys celebrate, knowing they accomplished something that many people thought we couldn’t.”

Joyner rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns, while teammate Trevon White added 79 yards and two more scores for Tarboro, which defeated East Surry for the 2020 crown during the delayed season last spring.

Ty Turbyfill ran for 101 yards and passed for a touchdown to provide the bulk of the offense for Mitchell (13-3).