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RALEIGH — Secrets had no place in Saturday’s North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A championship game with Southern Nash High and Charlotte Catholic.
Both offenses arrived at Carter-Finley Stadium with the unwavering belief in running the football, making every yard precious and hard fought. A scoreless halftime ledger was the embodiment of such.
But unlike the previous 15 games on the Southern Nash schedule — all victories en route to the best start to a season in school history — the Firebirds’ double-wing offense had limited wiggle room against the Charlotte Catholic defense with the game on the line.
Heralded Southern Nash senior running back Quinton Cooley, bound for Wake Forest University, was held under the 100-yard mark for the first time all season, and the Firebirds were held to their lowest rushing total of the year in a 23-7 loss that ended one game shy of a championship in the program’s first trip to the state’s biggest stage.
Charlotte Catholic, which scored on four second-half possessions prior to a kneeldown on its fifth to help erase a 7-3 Southern Nash lead early in the fourth quarter, ended the year 12-3 in winning its third straight championship. As the No. 5 seed from the West bracket, the Cougars survived a seven-overtime affair with Kings Mountain last week.
“I think it’s one of those games where both teams sort of knew what the other team was going to do,” Southern Nash head coach Brian Foster said. “We had a little momentum and was up 7-3 or whatever it was, then they hit us with a long run. We just sort of gave out of gas. That’s a credit to them and what they do. I don’t know what we would have done different if we went back.”
Despite the Charlotte Catholic offensive front of Malik McGowen, Matthew Hayek, Davis Hodgens, Liam Fitzpatrick and Carter Woody paving the road for 268 yards on the ground — the second-most allowed to an opponent in 2019 — Southern Nash’s defense twice held firm inside the 20-yard line in the first half to keep the Cougars off the board.
Facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line in the second quarter, seniors Zach Baker and Jason Bland stuffed Most Valuable Player Paul Neel for no gain, and after the ensuing drive ended with an Evan Barnes field-goal attempt of 43 yards that landed short, senior Izaiah Walker-Warren snuffed out another Charlotte Catholic threat by intercepting quarterback Harrison Barnett at the Firebirds’ 5-yard line. Thus, halftime arrived with a scoreless duel.
Neel, who finished with 159 yards on 27 carries and three TDs, returned the opening kickoff of the second half into Southern Nash territory. That helped set up a 31-yard field goal by Cole Knapp, giving the Cougars a 3-0 lead.
Yet Walker-Warren, who roamed sideline to sideline on this day, gave Southern Nash, the No. 1 seed in the 3-A East draw, a reason to believe just over three minutes later.
With Southern Nash in seeming disarray and on the verge of needing a timeout, Foster snapped the ball, bought time to his left and found an open Walker-Warren behind the coverage down to the Charlotte Catholic 1-yard line. Cooley plunged in on the next play, sending an expansive Southern Nash cheering section into an uproar as the Firebirds led 7-3.
Walker-Warren, the game’s Most Outstanding Player on defense for Southern Nash, earned the distinction by finishing with 18 total tackles. Including the interception, Walker-Warren was active on special teams and was responsible for Southern’s longest pass play of the afternoon.
However, needing to diversify against a defense that was geared to limit Cooley, the Firebirds could not sustain success through the air. On the first play of the fourth quarter, Neel ripped off Charlotte Catholic’s longest play of the day — a 39-yard run right through the heart of the Firebirds’ defense on a third-and-4 situation. The ensuing PAT gave the Cougars a 10-7 advantage.
Southern Nash went three plays and out on its next possession, and the Firebirds’ defense forced a third-and-10 from their 28. Charlotte Catholic called a timeout and returned with a halfback pass from Jimmy Brewer to Ty Foley. Foley barely prevented the ball from hitting the turf for a 22-yard gain, and Neel darted in from six yards out to extend the Cougars’ lead to 16-7 with just 6:23 remaining.
From there, the Firebirds were forced into an uncomfortable position in a two-possession affair. Foster was intercepted on third down, leading to Jimmy Brewer’s 18-yard dash to cap the scoring.
Cooley found the going arduous against Charlotte Catholic’s defensive front, finishing with 81 yards on 16 carries on his way to MOP honors on offense for the Firebirds. With Southern Nash mounting a first-quarter threat on fourth-and-2 from Charlotte Catholic’s 24, Cooley, as reliable as it gets on short yardage, was instead stuffed by McGowan and linebacker Jacob Schachte. McGowan, a North Carolina commit along the offensive line, flipped to the interior of the defense at times and used his 315-pound frame to deter passage up the middle.
After being stepped on late in the game, Cooley arrived for the postgame press conference on crutches.
“They were just a very disciplined team,” Cooley said of the Cougars. “You try to get on the edge, they seal the edge. You come inside, there’s a lineman coming straight at you. Linebackers filled their spots. They played hard and they fought hard, and they were more physical than us.”
Indeed, discipline was the overriding theme in containing Cooley and holding Southern Nash to its lowest team rushing output of the year at 157 yards.
“We really worked all week at plugging the gaps and then, just trying to hold on,” Brodowicz said. “You saw how powerful all their running backs were. A couple of times, I thought the play was dead and Cooley just bounced out right there.”
But Cooley was never allowed to run with abandon in the open field. Therefore, the Firebirds were stopped short despite a massive Southern Nash fan turnout that easily dwarfed that of Charlotte Catholic.
“You saw our crowd today,” Brian Foster said. “Our community, our makeup, our coaches, is the real deal. There’s nothing fake about it. I wouldn’t want our kids to play anywhere else.”