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From a purely football standpoint, Saturday’s North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A football championship game between Southern Nash and Charlotte Catholic at Carter-Finley Stadium should be, in old football coach parlance, a slobberknocker.
The Firebirds, 15-0 and champions of the East Region, and the Cougars, 11-3 and rulers of the West, didn’t get to Raleigh by being cute or flashy. The two schools might be situated miles apart in vastly different settings with contrasting demographics but they have football teams that share a philosophy. Southern Nash’s double-wing set and the wing-T formation of Charlotte Catholic are run first, last and always offenses. Both schemes demand a certain sort of physicality that is met by each team’s defense.
“They’re a running football team and they do a lot of similar stuff to us, and do it very well,” Firebirds head coach Brian Foster said at Monday’s NCHSAA football championship press conference in Raleigh. “The proof is in what they’ve done in recent years, so they’re a really solid football team.”
The philosophy has worked for Charlotte Catholic for nearly half a century since former head coach Jim Oddo brought the wing-T with him when arrived at the private school in 1973. Oddo, one of the legendary coaches in North Carolina prep history, won three state titles — 2-A in 1977, 2-AA in 2004 and 3-AA in 2005 — and took the Cougars to three others. However, his successor, Mike Brodowicz, has been just as successful while running the same offense. Brodowicz, a Cougars assistant coach from 2002 to 2014, directed Charlotte Catholic to the 4-A crown in 2015 as well as the last two 3-A championships.
“To watch what Coach Foster does, which is very similar to what we do, it’s kind of nice,” Brodowicz said. “I know he gets, ‘How come you don’t throw the ball more? Why do you just run the double-wing and run the football?’
“And I said, because it gets you to state championship games!”
However, this is the first state championship game for Foster and the Firebirds. A former Lenoir-Rhyne University quarterback who grew up in Forest City, Foster came to Southern Nash in 1990, joining first-year head coach Ray Davis’ staff. The Firebirds made it to the 3-A East final each of Foster’s first two seasons in Stanhope but success came sparingly after that. Foster took over in 1998 and didn’t produce a winning season until 2005. Charlotte Catholic has only had one season with less than double-digit wins since 2002
But Foster’s 2009 team, a No. 11 seed in the 3-AA East, made it to the regional final, setting off a decade of excellence for the Firebirds. Foster likens this team to his 2009 squad that was also tightknit.
“I think we’ve had four or five teams that have been similar to this team as far as close-knit, but like I said, it’s a tough thing to win every game,” Foster said. “It’s a tough thing to win in the playoffs every week. You can’t have a bad night, you can’t have turnovers. You can’t get the wrong call at the wrong time. This team is special from the standpoint that it’s not like we’ve been ahead every playoff game. We’ve gotten down, had to fight back. I just think they really, really believe in what we do. Which you’ve got to have that belief.”
What the Firebirds do is pound the ball relentlessly into the teeth of the defense, mainly on the legs of 5-foot-8, 193-pound senior Quinton Cooley, who has had a senior season for the ages. The Wake Forest University commit has rushed for 2,977 yards and 48 touchdowns (54 total) despite being the focal point of every defense the Firebirds have faced all season.
But senior quarterback Matt Foster, who has rushed for more than 1,100 yards and sophomore wingback Jackson Vick, with more than 900 yards, have proven that paying too much attention to Cooley comes at a cost.
Fullbacks Zach Jones and Daylon Whitley and the offensive line of Luke Watson, Trenton Weeks, Zollie Alford, Jordan Sam, Jadel Davis, Zach Baker, Hunter Thorne and Daniel Batchelor have helped Southern Nash run for more than 5,700 yards on the season. However, Brian Foster is doubtful that Thorne will recover from an ankle injury suffered in Friday’s regional final victory over Eastern Alamance.
The Cougars counter with an offense centered around 5-10, 174-pound junior Paul Neel, who has run for 1,816 yards and 22 TDs while sophomore Jimmy Brewer has 882 yards and seven TDs on the ground.
“Every time you run that type of offense, you’re physical football players and that’s what we pride ourselves on,” Brodowicz said. “I know Coach Foster, the way he runs that offense and the success he’s had there, that he prides himself on being physical. You’re hitting someone going full speed, running downhill every single time. Their running backs are expected to get hit, and so they embrace the physicality of the game. And so when you play a team like that versus a spread team, we’re going to be a little more physical. What our team is going to know at 3:06 going into this stadium right here is it’s going to be a physical football game. It’s going to come down to who can physically tackle and a yard, three yards is happy for Coach Foster and happy for us. So to stop a back like all three of their backs and their quarterback, just to get them to punt will be a challenge.”
Foster said that he expects the Cougars to stick to their philosophy just as his Firebirds will.
“They’re a lot like us. If they do something that works, they’re going to do it again,” he said. “I think a lot of people it seems like these days get away from that. They do something, ‘Well, they’re going to stop it this time, so we’ll do something else.’
“I think you can tell they (the Cougars) believe in what they do and they just repeat it.”
While the Firebirds had to fight past their toughest opponent of the season, previously unbeaten Eastern Alamance, in the 3-A East final, the Cougars needed seven overtimes to dispatch Kings Mountain 56-49 in the West championship game.
“That was phenomenal,” Brodowicz said. “I’ve never experienced that. There’s no go for two, so it was just the slugfest that went through. To play that type of game and that magnitude of trying to go to the state championship game, we had Kings Mountain last year, so we kind of knew each other, I thought it was probably one of the purest games of teams making plays.”
Making plays and avoiding mistakes will be what each team hopes to do Saturday to be able to bring home the championship hardware. While Brodowicz and the Cougars have practically lived at the state championship game for three years now, it’s taken Foster and the Firebirds a lifetime to reach this stage. However, the veteran coach has dealt with enough hardships — from the deaths of both of his brothers to an automobile wreck two years ago that left his wife, Kim, and oldest son, Zack, a former Firebirds quarterback and one of his current assistant coaches, with multiple broken bones each — to appreciate life as it comes.
“I think that we’ve been in situations that all of us understand you’re not guaranteed another day,” Brian Foster said. “I think that’s one thing that my immediate family, we definitely understand. So we’ll enjoy the moment, do the best we can and whatever happens, I’m still going to love them.”
Times staff writer Jack Frederick contributed to this report.