PITTSBORO — It was 18 months ago, on a partly cloudy, 34-degree night in Durham, when members of the Northwood Chargers’ football team walked off of the field — many of them for the …
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PITTSBORO — It was 18 months ago, on a partly cloudy, 34-degree night in Durham, when members of the Northwood Chargers’ football team walked off of the field — many of them for the last time — and made their way to the bus after a 56-14 loss to Northern Durham.
That 42-point loss capped off a four-game losing streak to end Northwood’s 4-7 season in 2019.
The postseason was out of the question.
It was the closing game of head coach Cullen Homolka’s first season with the team, while simultaneously being the final moments of the careers of 13 seniors, including the team’s starting quarterback, second-leading rusher, second-leading receiver and sacks leader.
While the season hadn’t gone as planned, there were glimpses of what Northwood football could be, visible building blocks for a successful future.
They just had to get there.
On Friday, a year and a half later, the Chargers’ pandemic-shortened spring season ended in a similar fashion, a sizable loss, 32-7, to a formidable opponent, the still-undefeated Havelock Rams.
But this time, it was in the second round of the NCHSAA 2A football playoffs in Pittsboro, with Northwood finishing the year as 6-3 conference co-champions.
What a difference an extended offseason makes.
“(This season) went great,” said Michael Anthony, senior defensive tackle for the Chargers. “It went way better than we expected. We had a lot of people doubting us — we still do — but hey, we set a foundation for them to go forward next season to be great and achieve what we couldn’t achieve and win a state championship.”
By all accounts, this wasn’t supposed to be a close game.
Havelock, entering Friday night, had an 8-0 record, winning all but one game by at least 37 points. It beat its first-round opponent, Southern Guilford, 56-14 on April 16.
The Rams’ star running back, Kamarro Edmonds, has committed to play for the UNC Tar Heels next season, while their dual-threat quarterback, sophomore Andrew Frazier, lit it up in the team’s first eight games — throwing for more than 1,400 yards and 25 touchdowns before the matchup with the Chargers.
While those two — along with some of Havelock’s other offensive centerpieces — posed problems down the stretch, Northwood seemed to have them rattled early on.
The Chargers are billed as a defense-focused team with superb special teams to boot, an accurate characterization in the first half of Friday’s game — especially in the first quarter.
As unbeatable as Havelock’s looked all season, the game didn’t start that way.
On the game’s opening drive, Frazier found sophomore wide receiver Javonte Vereen wide open in the middle of the field for a 53-yard touchdown, but it was called back on an illegal motion penalty on the Rams. The next play was an offensive holding penalty on an incomplete pass, pushing Havelock back even further in its own territory.
Two plays later, on a Havelock punt, Northwood senior safety and starting quarterback Cam Entrekin burst through the offensive line untouched, engulfing the ball as it left the punter’s foot. It bounced on the ground once and landed right back into Entrekin’s hands, and he returned it for a 31-yard score.
Just like that, Northwood took a 7-0 lead as its sold-out crowd (limited capacity) and sideline went wild.
For a moment, the Chargers had a chance. Havelock hadn’t seen a defense or special teams unit quite like Northwood’s. That became more evident when, on the ensuing Rams drive, Edmonds coughed up the ball on a carry near Havelock’s own 35-yard-line and Northwood recovered. The Chargers had elation in their faces, the Rams had frustration.
“At the beginning of the game, they were getting frustrated when we were stopping them and then they started yelling at each other,” said Jake Mann, senior linebacker and long snapper for the Chargers. “Usually that doesn’t help the team, it makes them worse.”
Havelock must thrive on tough love, however, because despite the bickering, the finger-pointing and the visible momentum shift, the Rams still found a way to settle into their rhythm.
Northwood’s offense couldn’t capitalize on the turnover, barely gaining any yards — aside from an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Havelock — for senior kicker Aidan Laros, who missed a 35-yard field goal try.
The Rams were held scoreless until their first drive of the second quarter, a rarity, when Frazier took the game into his own hands on a QB keeper, looping around a blocker to his left and speeding past a trio of Northwood defenders for a 37-yard touchdown.
Those big plays, as they have on multiple occasions this season, were killers for the Chargers, who weren’t able to make much noise offensively.
Homolka mentioned after previous games that Northwood will “live and die” by its run-heavy offensive style. Friday was no different.
The Chargers, whose offense has struggled this season, ran 55 offensive plays against Havelock, with a lopsided split of 52 runs and just three passes. On those 52 carries, Northwood mustered 108 yards, an average of 2.1 yards per carry against a Havelock defense that was just as tenacious as its own.
With a little over two minutes to play in the second quarter and the ball on the Havelock 46-yard-line, Northwood attempted a questionable fake punt on fourth-and-seven, which saw backup quarterback Kirk Haddix take the ball for two yards on a carry up the middle.
That missed opportunity allowed the Rams to have great field position on their final drive of the half.
After a 34-yard pass from Frazier (15-for-19 for 231 yards, 2 TDs) to senior wide receiver Jaheim Lockhart that put them in the red zone, Havelock used up the remaining clock, capping the drive off with a 1-yard touchdown by Edmonds with just 11 seconds left in the half. The extra point was no good, but despite early struggles, the Rams took a 13-7 lead into the locker room.
“We thought we had them on the ropes,” Homolka said. “Our team has to learn how to finish that, though. That’s been a thing we’ve had all year, we’ve got a team on the ropes and we just can’t finish it. … That’s something we’ll work on this summer and get right.”
In the second half, it was all Havelock as the Chargers’ offensive woes continued and the Rams’ athletes turned up the heat.
Halfway through the third quarter, Frazier lofted a 32-yard touchdown pass on a drive that started at Havelock’s own 10-yard-line, putting them up 19-7 after another missed extra point.
Setting up that touchdown was a 30-yard run by Havelock’s senior rushing leader Jaylen Budget, who broke a few tackles deep into Northwood territory. Budget (6 carries for 55 yards, TD) and Edmonds (15 carries for 151 yards, 2 TDs) were masterful at forcing broken and missed tackles once they got going.
“We could have done a little bit better on securing tackles,” said Anthony. “I missed a couple myself and I’m still kind of beating myself up on that. I always will. I beat myself up on that every game. But overall, I feel like we played well.”
On the following drive, Northwood turned the ball over on downs after four straight rushing plays, leading to another short field for the Rams, who took a 25-7 lead on a 4-yard touchdown run by Edmonds.
The same spirit and energy wasn’t quite there for the Chargers in the second half, who allowed 32 unanswered points and scored none of their own after the blocked punt touchdown in the first quarter. The offense was held scoreless as it continued to run the ball, even when down a few scores.
In his post-game speech at midfield, Homolka commended the players who fought to improve upon last season’s mediocrity, especially the seniors who helped make this run possible.
Northwood is losing 16 of those seniors, three more than last season, including Mann, Anthony, Laros and plenty of others who have thrived this season on both sides of the ball.
“We played like a family and a team, that’s all I care about,” Anthony said. “I’ll be supporting those guys every step of the way, whether I’m in college or I’m playing football or I’m down here, I’m for sure going to support those boys. They’re my boys for life.”
The void they leave will be huge, but Homolka had a message for the underclassmen after the game: “We aren’t rebuilding, we’re reloading.”
He appeared confident in the players he had moving forward as he looks to continue building off of the winning culture he’s created in Pittsboro in his second season.
“The seniors got us there and iron sharpens iron,” Homolka said. “Our juniors and sophomores coming up are going to be great players, so we have a chance to do something similar to this next year if we just get together and start working now.”