PITTSBORO — Northwood had every reason to come out flat against Western Alamance last Friday night.
Coming off of a deflating, 37-0 shutout road loss to the Eastern Alamance Eagles a week earlier, the Chargers’ three-game winning streak — snapped by the Eagles that night — felt like a lifetime ago.
Then, just five days later, the team’s head coach resigned.
Cullen Homolka, the fifth-year coach who helped lead the team to the postseason during the 2020-21 season, announced his resignation from both his teaching and coaching duties last Wednesday, the school’s athletic director, Cameron Vernon, told the News + Record. Northwood assistant coach Dennis Burton, previously acting as the defensive coordinator, was named the interim head coach for the rest of the season.
So, entering Friday’s game against the Warriors (4-5-1, 3-2 in Central 3A), the Chargers (4-5, 2-3 in Central 3A) were without their usual head coach as they fought for their postseason lives, which was only going to come through one of the 3A East’s 17 wild-card spots.
And while the Warriors ultimately handed the Chargers their second-straight loss, 21-6, it didn’t come without a strong-willed fight. And a punched ticket to the playoffs.
“I thought we played well tonight,” Burton said after his first game as the Chargers’ interim head coach. “I thought this was one of the better games we’ve played as a team.”
Early on, Northwood didn’t look fazed by the week’s chaos.
After a three-and-out on the first drive of the game, followed by a punt return into Chargers’ territory, the Northwood defense stood up against the Warriors on their first possession, shutting down their offense and forcing a turnover on downs on the Chargers’ 36-yard-line in just four plays — thanks, in part, to a botched snap on fourth down, a common theme for an up-and-down Warriors offense throughout the night.
The Chargers capitalized on the defensive stop as senior running back Dashaun Vines-McSwain broke the game wide open, bolting through the middle of the line and taking it 55 yards to the Warriors’ red zone.
Two plays later, Vines-McSwain completed the touchdown drive with a 4-yard TD run around the right side. A failed two-point conversion gave the Chargers a 6-0 lead midway through the first period.
However, as great as the Chargers looked on both sides early on, that would be the last time they’d find the end zone on the night— or put points on the board at all.
And it was only a matter of time before Western Alamance did.
On the ensuing drive, Northwood sophomore linebacker Ryan Brinker blocked a Western Alamance punt, allowing the Chargers to take over at the Warriors’ 40-yard-line.
But as has been the case in many losses this season, the Chargers’ run-first offense got nowhere, carrying the ball four times for just three yards and turning it over on downs.
While Northwood’s defense played well in the opening quarter — allowing just 13 yards on three possessions — it continued to be susceptible to big passing plays, as seen on Western Alamance’s first drive of the second quarter — a 69-yard TD pass from sophomore quarterback Evan Kuehnel to senior wide receiver Kaden Wilborn, who slanted across the middle of the field and torched the secondary for an easy score.
Northwood fumbled the ball during the return of the ensuing kickoff and it was recovered by Western Alamance, which took over at the Chargers’ 26-yard-line and promptly scored on a 1-yard TD run on a short, six-play drive.
All of a sudden, the Chargers found themselves in a 14-6 hole that they’d never dig themselves out of.
“Big plays (changed the game),” Burton said. “It’s kind of been our thing all year. We’ll just have a breakdown and they get a big play and it costs us points.”
In the second half, Western Alamance’s slippery junior running back Mason Hogsed helped lead the Warriors to another scoring drive, capped off by a 12-yard-run by Hogsed to give his team a 21-6 lead toward the end of the third quarter.
Down by 15 points and having had its last two drives result in few yards — just 6 total — on six run plays, the Chargers decided to do what the student section had been clamoring for since the first half: throw the football.
The Chargers brought in sophomore quarterback Will Smith — which they did throughout the night on passing downs — and let him finish out the game at the end of the fourth quarter. Smith aired it out to senior running back Jalen Paige as he streaked down the right sideline, completing the 57-yard catch before being thrown down at the Warriors’ 2-yard-line.
While Northwood had the perfect opportunity to cut it to a one-score game, the Chargers ran four run plays from inside the 2-yard-line and mustered just a single yard. They turned it over on downs as Western Alamance celebrated a hard-nosed goal-line stop.
From there, the Chargers’ momentum was shot.
“I think if we score that, we get a stop and we’ve got that last drive where we’re trying to do it, maybe we end up a touchdown short, I don’t know, but it definitely changes the way they would have played,” Burton said of the goal-line stand. “We made a couple of mistakes and that’s what hurts.”
The game ended with a fourth-quarter interception by Western Alamance senior defensive back Jackson Snyder, who handed Smith his only turnover of the night.
Under Burton, Smith threw the ball six times, completing five for 73 yards and an interception. It’s the second-most passing yards the Chargers have had in a game all season.
The week’s distractions aside, Burton was able to grab hold of the Chargers’ locker room and get them ready for a crucial game.
“I just talked to them about how, when things do go wrong, this is when teams get stronger, you shouldn’t turn on each other,” Burton said. “Bad times make strong people.”
Despite two straight conference losses and a sub-.500 overall record (and conference record), the Chargers earned a postseason berth as the No. 31 seed in the 3A East bracket and will take on the No. 2 Northern Nash Knights (9-1, 6-0 in 2A/3A East 17 conference) at 7 p.m. on Friday in Rocky Mount.
“If we get a playoff game, I know it’ll be against a good opponent, so we’ll do the best we can to get ready for them,” Burton said about a potential playoff berth before the NCHSAA released its postseason brackets. “I hope the seniors get another game.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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