PITTSBORO — As the West Carteret Patriots pushed forward in the first half, fighting for every inch on a third-down play in Northwood territory, the ball suddenly popped out of the pile of …
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PITTSBORO — As the West Carteret Patriots pushed forward in the first half, fighting for every inch on a third-down play in Northwood territory, the ball suddenly popped out of the pile of jerseys near the 25-yard-line, emerging from the skirmish and bouncing in the opposite direction.
Northwood senior Will Lake locked onto it and scooped it up, taking it 75 yards to the house — arms outstretched in both celebration and disbelief — on the Chargers’ second defensive touchdown in as many weeks.
Those would be the final points of the game for either team, but with Northwood nursing a 17-point lead after Lake’s heroics, they didn’t need to score again. And with them, the Chargers (6-2) defeated the seventh-seeded West Carteret Patriots (5-3) in the first round of the NCHSAA 3A football playoffs on Friday, advancing to the second round this Friday against the unbeaten Havelock Rams.
Northwood stuck to its game plan, running the ball down the Patriots’ throats and playing suffocating defense throughout the night.
It may start to sound like a broken record, but the Chargers won’t change their style for anybody, no matter the situation. And so far, it’s worked, bringing them to a Big Eight conference co-title and a first-round playoff victory.
“They play lights out every night and fight until the end and they never ever stop, man,” said Northwood Head Coach Cullen Homolka. “It’s tooth and nail to the end, so congratulations to them on getting it done. … Everything we needed to do clicked.”
They set the tone from the opening drive.
The Chargers marched 54 yards in 10 plays — all rushes — capping it off with a one-yard touchdown run on a keeper by senior quarterback Cam Entrekin to make it 7-0 with seven minutes left in the first quarter.
While they wouldn’t have many possessions like that one again — scoring just one offensive touchdown all night — the ability to gash the Patriots with the run early was massive for a team like Northwood that’s built to maintain a lead but struggles to come from behind.
Chargers’ senior kicker Aidan Laros (1-for-3 on the night) knocked down a 48-yard field goal on the next possession to give them a 10-0 lead, passing the torch to their defense to keep them ahead.
They didn’t disappoint.
This season, West Carteret passed the ball on a little more than 38% of its offensive plays, and after the game against Panther Creek two weeks ago when Northwood was beaten on three touchdown plays of 40-plus yards, it was interesting to see how they’d match up against the Patriots’ passing game.
If there were any doubts of whether Northwood could compete with pass-heavy teams, this game put them to rest.
Patriots’ senior quarterback Ethan McLaughlin completed 12 of his 24 passes for just 94 yards, many of which were short screens to his running backs, with zero touchdowns and one interception.
A major key to disrupting McLaughlin came in the form of senior defensive lineman Kentrell Edwards, who chased him down all night, sacking him and hurrying him whenever he got loose in the backfield.
“Kentrell Edwards is a kid that has come along and his character, his effort, everything is great,” Homolka said. “He comes out in practice and he gives me the same effort you see out here. … I’m proud of that kid.”
Edwards was the face of a defense that wreaked havoc on McLaughlin, making him uncomfortable in his throws and forcing him to scramble or throw on the run more as the game progressed. His speed and elusiveness allowed him to sneak out of a couple of potential bad sacks, but when he did, it rarely translated to positive plays.
“If you’re going to throw on us, we’re going to bring you pressure,” Homolka said. “If you watch us, you know that.”
West Carteret put together a couple of formidable drives throughout the game, but most of them ended in turnovers — including Lake’s 75-yard fumble recovery touchdown — with the Patriots coming away empty-handed.
One notable drive happened at the start of the third quarter, where McLaughlin hit a couple of chunk passing plays of 15 and 20 yards to get them close to the red zone. Late in the drive, he threw a pass for junior wide receiver J.J. Montford toward the end zone, landing just ahead of him, but Northwood junior defensive back Jack Spotz was called for pass interference.
The penalty would have given West Carteret the ball right at the brink of the goal line, but after the play was over, a Patriot was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, negating the pass interference call and pushing them back even further.
Three plays later, McLaughlin threw a pass that hit his receiver in the hands, but he couldn’t reel it in as the ball popped up into the air and Lake — in the right place at the right time once again — intercepted it.
“Honestly, we were just capitalizing on opportunities, man,” Lake said after the win. “That’s the name of the game.”
Northwood’s rushing attack, led by junior running back Jalen Paige (16 carries for 85 yards), helped kill the clock throughout the second half, giving the Patriots very few opportunities to mount any sort of comeback.
After the game, it was all smiles for Homolka, who earned his first-ever playoff win as a head coach on Friday in his second year in Pittsboro. It was Northwood’s first home playoff game in 11 years.
“I’ve had two (career playoff games as a head coach), and in the last one, we didn’t win it, so this is a big win,” Homolka said. “It was great. The kids played their tails off, man.”
In addition to playing for a spot in the second round, the Chargers battled for their teammate, sophomore Troy Ennis, who was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma on April 9. It’s a “very rare type of cancerous tumor that grows either in the bones or in the tissue surrounding the bones,” according to Ennis’ GoFundMe page, which has raised over $54,000 in just six days.
Team members wore the number 22 on their helmets — and coaches, staff and fans wore ‘22’ stickers on their t-shirts and jackets — to show their support.
“Troy’s been missed,” Homolka said. “He’s a tough kid, man. I love him to death. He’s like a son to me. I hate it for him and I hope he sees brighter days sooner than later.”
For Northwood, its playoff fight continues at home on Friday against the third-seeded Havelock Rams (8-0), who have won seven of those games by at least 37 points.
In short, they’re a powerhouse on a roll. It won’t be an easy task, especially having to defend the senior rushing duo of UNC Tar Heels commit Kamarro Edmonds and Jaylen Budget.
“I haven’t seen any film on them yet, but we’re going to do what we do,” Homolka said. “We’ll live and die in what we do and we’ll see what happens. We’re not changing anything for nobody.”
In Homolka’s post-game speech to his team, he seemed hopeful about Northwood’s chances of going far, even past Havelock. While laughing, he gave them some guidelines on celebrating the win.
“Don’t do anything stupid,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of ball left to play.”