The little team(s) that could

Published 9:48 am Tuesday, November 14, 2017

KINSTON – Three months ago, they weren’t even a team.

But Saturday, it was a co-op squad of players from both Northeast and Hobgood academies (NHA) claiming the NC Independent Schools’ 1A state championship here by a 25-24 score over Halifax Academy at Hodges Field, Arendell-Parrott Academy.

In a game defined by big plays, it may have been a small play, a Curtis Faulkner point-after kick – the only PAT of the game by either team – that made the difference in a one-point contest.

Or, it may have been safety Zy Mathewson’s interception with seven seconds left in this nail-biter of a game that brought the little team that almost wasn’t straight into the record books.

Northeast-Hobgood senior running back Tay Mosley fights for yardage in the first half of NHA’s 1A NCISAA state championship game Saturday in Kinston. Mosley finished with 196 yards and accounted for four touchdowns in the 25-24 win over Halifax Academy.

“It wasn’t a runaway,” said a wet but jubilant NHA coach Brandon Lanier, doused with Gatorade after the game. “It wasn’t a 60-or-70 point game, it just got down to defense and we made more plays.”

Twice this season, the Vikings had gotten the better of NHA, winning both games in Roanoke Rapids. Prior to this game, Lanier had reminded his players of a similar scenario nearly 25 years ago.

“I told them that I played in a championship game, and we lost to a team that we’d beaten in the regular season,” Lanier said. “I reminded them the regular season was over, and this was our time to take it. No regrets.”

And take it they did, thanks in part to a 196-yard final performance from leading rusher Tay Mosley – who scored the game-winning touchdown – on to the co-op team’s first-ever title.

Halifax came in riding a six-game win streak and the Vikings scored on their first possession, going 66 yards in just three plays before Harrison Hardee broke a run off the left side straight to the end zone, and despite missing a two-point conversion, Halifax led it 6-0.

Adding to the early worry-woes for NHA fans, the team fumbled on their next possession as Jared Byrum scooped up a Mosley drop; but the defense stopped the Halifax drive.

NHA’s third possession was a long 65-yard drive, highlighted by a crucial 19-yard gain when quarterback Ryan Rowe hit Faulkner over the middle to keep the drive alive. Rowe later called his own number on the three-yard line and punched it in for the equalizer, and despite a missed extra-point, the game was knotted at 6-6.

NHA’s Mosley (left) and Zy Mathewson (right,#28) cradle an interception at the end of the game that seals the win.

It remained that way into the second quarter and neither team could seize command. Halifax looked like it had a sure score on their first drive of the quarter, but Viking running back Donovyn Gary fumbled in the end zone, and Justin Jones recovered for the NHA touchback.

Still, the teams had an exchange of punts before Halifax stopped NHA on fourth-down at their 33-yard line. Jones almost had his second turnover of the game, an interception, but the play was called back on an Eagles’ penalty. Two plays later, Viking quarterback Cam Podrunchny somehow wiggled out of a sure sack and lobbed a wobbly pass toward the end zone. Bryce Cooke hauled in the pigskin for a Halifax touchdown and a 12-6 lead with a minute-12 left in the half. Again, the PAT failed and NHA could only run out the clock at the end of the period and left for the locker-room trailing by a touchdown.

Halifax received the opening kickoff of the second half and drove to the NHA six-yard line where, on fourth-and-goal, defender Mckenly Jordan swatted away a pass in the end zone and preserved the six-point deficit.

Itching to break a long gain all game, Mosley finally got his chance. The senior speedster took a handoff on the first play, cut through the middle, weaving to the outside, and merely outran a slew of Halifax chasers 94 yards to paydirt. It was here that Faulkner’s extra-point kick gave NHA its first lead of the contest, 13-12.

But Halifax answered quickly with a big-play of their own. Starting in the shadow of their own goal-post at the four-yard line, Podrunchny threw for a 25-yard gain out to the 32. A short two-yard run was followed by Podrunchny unleashing a 63-yard bomb to Byrum, and like that – in less than two minutes – the Vikings were back in front, despite missing another PAT, 18-13.

Another exchange of punts found NHA with its first possession of the fourth quarter starting at their own five-yard line. The Eagles drove to midfield before Mosley, on an option, spotted Faulkner free behind the Viking defense, and hit him on a 44-yard go-route and NHA re-took the lead, albeit by one-point after the conversion run failed, 19-18.

With under seven-and-a-half minutes remaining, Lanier opted for a short kick and Halifax got the ball at the NHA 47-yard line. They only needed two plays for Podrunchny to send a 36-yard spiral toward Gary and he outran NHA defenders back into a Halifax 24-19 lead.

With under six minutes, 5:57 to be exact, left in the game, NHA started on their own 37 and slowly ate away at the clock, grinding out short yardage on six running plays to the Halifax 32-yard line. Somehow, a pass play was called, and with 1:32 left, Rowe was intercepted and a gasp went up from the NHA crowd.

But, once more, a big-play happened. Halifax fumbled on their first play from scrimmage, and Mathewson recovered at the Viking 20-yard line with 1:21 left. Four plays, including a four-yard tackle-for-loss, left NHA knocking on the door at the five-yard line. This time, Mosley took no chances. His final run and fourth touchdown made it a one-point game, 25-24, with 42 seconds left.

Kicking it deep this time, Halifax started on their own 22 thanks to an NHA personal foul penalty. Podrunchny had one incompletion, before a toss over the middle got the Vikings to the 45. Another incompletion was followed

NHA quarterback Ryan Rowe (#21) is hoisted by teammate L.J. Barnes as the teammates celebrate the victory and the title.

by Podrunchny getting stuffed for no-gain. With 15 seconds left, he launched a pass downfield to the NHA 34, but Mathewson came through with his second pick, tipping it in the air before settling under it, and the NHA sideline erupted in pandemonium. Rowe took a knee in the final seven seconds and suddenly the field was flooded with fans in red, black, and white.

Stevie Flythe – defensive coach this season, formerly head coach at Northeast – had some clashes with Lanier this season, as in the past. But both coaches were all smiles at the end.

“We played against each other, we coached against each other,” Flythe said. “In the end, we were fine after it was over with.”

“This is just an amazing team,” said Mosley. “I’m glad I could be a part of it.”

Rowe, who usually shuns hugs, got a huge one from his brother, Nathan, who was part of the 2015 Northeast team that lost in the state title game.

“I got a lot of hugs,” Rowe exclaimed through a megawatt smile. “And I gave out a few of them, too.”