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Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
It’s the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association postseason, which means the steps toward a championship are few. However, those final few paces are the most arduous, with talented opponents ready to thwart the journey at a moment’s notice.
Such is the scenario before the SouthWest Edgecombe High varsity football team, as the Cougars, seeded No. 2 in the 2-AA East bracket, prepare for No. 3 seed North Davidson on Friday night in Pinetops. The Cougars, champions of the Eastern Plains Conference, enter with an 11-2 record coming off a convincing 48-0 shutout of Croatan last week. North Davidson, situated just south of Winston-Salem, makes the 182-mile, one-way trek to Edgecombe County with an 11-2 mark and as the runner-up in the Central Carolina Conference. The only loss for the Knights is at the hands of conference champ Thomasville Ledford, the top overall seed in the 2-AA East draw, and the Ledford-Hertford County survivor will get the SouthWest-North Davidson winner next week with a trip to a state championship game at stake.
Although the NCHSAA’s use of longitude and latitude lines places North Davidson in the East, SouthWest Edgecombe head coach Jonathan Cobb makes no mistake. Friday’s showdown will be a heavy dose of Western North Carolina football.
“They really kind of look like the epitome of Western North Carolina football,” Cobb said. “They really look like a polished program, and everything’s in sync. I think they’re going to bring a challenge to us. We’re thankful to be playing on our home field, and they’ve got a 3-hour drive they’ve got to handle. It’s going to be a big-time game, and I think it will be a big atmosphere.”
Cobb expects the Knights, coached by Brian Flynn, to bring a complex offensive scheme to the table. North Davidson shades more towards the run at a 56-44 percent clip, but has a 1,000-yard receiver in senior Themus Fulks. Junior Landon Moore is the quarterback, having thrown for 2,216 yards and 22 TDs to go along with eight interceptions. Run-pass options are prevalent with North Davidson, Cobb said.
“We’re playing a team that played in the Eastern championship last year,” Cobb cautioned. “They’ve been in these games, and I know they went down to East Duplin in the Eastern championship last year and it was a close game. The quarterback is impressive in his ability to put the ball where he wants it to go.”
But the Cougars have their own capable tools with which to attack, including the wishbone offense. SouthWest tallied 347 yards rushing against Croatan in the second round, but at the same time, limited its opponent to just 125 yards of total offense.
Senior Darntrell Council, who went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season last week, is the leading rusher statistically, but the collection of backs extends to senior Jareil Collins, junior Cortezz Jones, sophomore Tayshaun Pittman and junior Jordan Clayton.
Senior quarterback Jayden Lewis and junior wide receiver Keishon Porter give SouthWest an element it hasn’t necessarily enjoyed in the past, with the ability to punish stacked boxes via the pass in single coverage.
This is the third time a SouthWest team under Cobb’s direction has reached the third round or better. The Cougars played for the 2-A East championship in 2015, losing a heartbreaking 22-21 overtime decision at Kinston.
“The guys on this team haven’t played in the third or fourth round yet,” Cobb said. “I think we have three guys on our team that were freshman that were pulled up from JV on that ‘15 team. This is a new experience for most of our players, and we’re trying to get them to understand that this time of year, when you get in these games, you’ve got to be your best, because you’ll be playing top-notch competition.”
SouthWest has the usual assortment of bumps and bruises, the collection prevalent in some position groups more than others. Cobb declares the team overall in “decent shape” from an injury standpoint, and despite chilly conditions, in a state of readiness for Friday’s responsibilities.
“I think they’re very focused,” Cobb said, “We’re definitely trying to prepare to the best of our ability. It’s mighty cold out there, and it’s in the 30s. And kids are trying to focus and learn and get everything in we need to have in.”