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SMITHFIELD — North Johnston High varsity football head coach Michael Barnett’s first win, by no means, will be his prettiest.
But as the ice chips from an emptied cooler started being tossed in the air by players while the clock ran out behind them, the feeling finally hit the first-year head coach that a 29-15 win over host Smithfield-Selma on Friday night, even with the warts of nearly 250-yards in penalties and a host of turnovers, would be his first.
“It feels great,” Barnett said, a modest grin slowly growing into a wide smile as the reality set in. “They always say the first one is the hardest and they did not lie. We were so close last week and the boys came out this week pumped up and ready to practice.”
After an 0-3 start to the season, the Panthers earned the honors of spoiling Smithfield-Selma’s homecoming, handing the Spartans’ head coach Mike Parrish, a North Johnston grad, the first such loss on that night. The game was North Johnston’s second contest of the week, following a loss to James Kenan on Monday, Sept. 9, in Kenly.
On the way to victory, the Panthers did not take an early lead, nor did they start to pull away until the bitter end of the final quarter.
The team gave up an early score, watching Spartan sophomore running back Brandon Perry carry the ball 23 yards into the end zone for a 6-0 lead.
But the score had not fazed his team. In the next offensive drive, an eight-play, 87-yard drive, the Panthers tied the game on a Camron Privette 6-yard rush, then took the lead on the ensuing extra point nailed by Graham Walston.
Barnett knew right then his team would be in good shape. That early ability to respond was a quality of the North Johnston football team that served it well all game.
In fact, every time the Spartans scored, the Panthers responded with a touchdown on the next drive, leaving little breathing room for the home team to advance its lead in front of a packed homecoming crowd.
The offensive response was something the team has struggled with in recent games.
“It was good because these past couple games our offense was really stagnant and we couldn’t really move the ball,” senior quarterback Camden Aycock said. “And then we finally found a groove and keep running it down their throat and mixing it up.”
Barnett said the feat isn’t one that’s easy in high school football.
“A lot of people don’t understand, when you’re dealing with 16-, 17-year-old kids, ups and downs are huge,” Barnett said. “If they can go down and come right back up, you have a chance at success. These kids did it tonight. They kept coming back. There were times when I was like, ‘oh crap,’ but they kept coming back.”
Barnett had an “oh crap” moment in the middle of the second quarter when quarterback Clevonte Watson ran all the way down the sideline for a 41-yard touchdown to give his team a 12-7 lead.
But with 4:21 until halftime, North Johnston bounced back with a quarterback rushing touchdown of its own that saw Aycock dive over the pile from the 1.
After the half, North Johnston came out and turned the ball over on downs. When it forced a fumble out of the Spartans, the Panthers could do little with it and had to punt.
Then Smithfield-Selma kicked a 26-yard field goal to take a 15-14 lead.
“I was kind of getting worried, but then we ended up answering back with the score,” Aycock admitted.
Aycock’s second touchdown of the game followed directly after the field goal. The Panthers moved 80 yards over a long drive of 13 plays, capped off with the senior signal-caller escaping through the middle from 7 yards out.
With a 22-15 lead, though, Smithfield-Selma was still a touchdown away from tying the game once again.
Only it didn’t.
North Johnston forced a fumble out of the Spartans, then coughed up a turnover of its own. With 1:31, Parrish started rallying his players to drive down and win the game.
But on the third play, George Brewer, who entered for Watson, overthrew a ball that landed right into North Johnston defensive back Garrett Brown’s hands at the 16-yard line.
Brown knew what to do from there.
“Coach (Barnett) told me to play back and wait for it to come to me,” Brown said. “I just caught it and then I saw open grass and I took off running for it.”
Brown did not stop running until he reached the end zone, for his first ever pick-six.
“It was like in the movies. I saw that ball in the air, and I said, ‘he’s going to get it. He’s going to get it,’ Barnett said. “And when he caught it, I almost went out there and lead blocked for him.”
That’s when Parrish knew it was over.
“When the interception happened, they kind of started to see the curtains closing,” Parrish said.
On one final drive to make the score closer, the Spartans came out and threw another interception.
When North Johnston could answer to anything, Smithfield-Selma could not. Despite the Spartans passing for more yards and rushing much more than the visiting team, the Panthers found a recipe to win the game.
“It feels surreal,” Aycock said. “We worked so daggone hard and everybody was down because we lost those first three games.