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Lining up with a mere nine players as compared to 18 for the opposition didn’t appear a level situation for the North Carolina Schools for the Deaf eight-player football team.
Once visiting Mississippi School for the Deaf kicked off, the Bear-Hornets, despite having a combined team of players from N.C. School for the Deaf in Morganton and Wilson’s Eastern N.C. School for the Deaf, found themselves at an even bigger disadvantage.
With slightly over eight minutes still remaining in the second quarter, the bigger and more physical Bulldogs owned a 42-0 margin en route to a 50-12 Mason-Dixon Conference triumph in NCSsD’s delayed season opener on a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon at ENCSD.
Mississippi’s 42-point lead resulted in immediate enforcement for the continuous clock for the game’s remainder. The clock stopped only for injuries and time-outs.
Against the continuous clock and Bulldogs reserves, the Bear-Hornets fared well the second half. But by then, Mississippi’s third win without a loss was well secured.
“We played together much better,” assessed NCSsD co-head coach Leonard Baker. “Mississippi is probably the best team in the conference. I don’t think we’ll play a team as strong as them the rest of the season.”
Mississippi seized the national championship for hearing-impaired, eight-player teams in 2015 and back as the head coach is Eric Whitworth, who directed the Bulldogs to six national championships during his first stint.
“I felt really good the first half,” Whitworth said. “The first team did what it’s supposed to do, but we’re still working with the second team.
“(NCSsD) tried really hard and, if they get a couple more players. We’ve got a really good team and our goal is to win (national championship).”
And numbers are a glaring issue for the Bear-Hornets. Baker revealed one player was not available and two others quit during the week.
Mississippi displayed the potential to overpower, but NCSsD helped with problems with the snap from center. At least a dozen snaps were fumbled and another dozen sailed high — some too lofty that they exceeded the reach of 6-foot-3 sophomore Jeremiah Deans.
“We’re probably going to have to go under center and forget the shotgun,” Baker said. “We don’t have many options.”
Despite senior Luis Vargas’ fumble recovery, the Bulldogs opened the scoring with a safety; junior Ken Meeks stepped in from 5 yards out; Meeks returned an interception 41 yards for a TD; junior Frederick Nelson tallied from a yard out; sophomore Alex Jones burst 9 yards; Meeks bolted 63 yards on a punt return; and Meeks thundered 40 yards for the final TD on the first play of the second half.
Both teams had TDs negated by penalties.
Up 42-0, Whitworth turned to his reserves.
“I don’t like to embarrass kids,” he explained, “and we brought in the second unit.”
The Bear-Hornets learned they could move the football once Deans could handle the snap from center and when they could get sophomore Alfonza Robinson of ENCSD outside.
Robinson took a pitch from Vargas and scurried 67 yards for NCSsD’s first TD with 1:56 left in the first half.
“If we can get him outside in space, he’s pretty darned fast,” Baker noted.
Robinson amassed 178 yards on five rushes.
In the closing minutes, the Bulldogs drove inside the Hornets’ 10-yard line, but attempted to exhaust the clock by taking a knee on third and fourth downs.
However, Baker called two timeouts to conserve enough time to get the ball back and, on the final play, Robinson took a pitch from Deans and darted 92 yards for the Bear-Hornets’ final TD.
Whitworth shook his head and smiled.
“Holding this group together — that’s the big thing,” Baker said of the plight of an NCSsD team that travels to Cave Spring, Georgia, to oppose Georgia School for the Deaf next Saturday.