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The third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association postseason is a place the Southern Nash High varsity football team hasn’t visited since 2009.
It’s an unforgiving place, this cherished position on the day after Thanksgiving. Usually by this time, the upstarts who have engineered a first-round upset have packed up the equipment following the second round. With just two steps separating teams from an appearance in a state championship game, any warmup acts
— if they even existed in the first place — are gone.
After four unsuccessful attempts to reach the third round over the last four years, the Firebirds have finally returned to the post-turkey stage. But their opponent Friday night will be a program that has turned practice during the third week of November into a matter of routine.
Waiting for Southern Nash to make the trek down U.S. 70 will be the Havelock Rams, who have reached at least the third round in every season this decade with the exception of 2015. The Rams, under former coach Jim Bob Bryant, won three consecutive NCHSAA 3-A titles from 2011-13.
Southern Nash, the No. 3 seed among the 16 East Region qualifiers, enters with a 12-1 record as champions of the Big East Conference. Havelock, the No. 2 seed, also sits at 12-1 after sweeping through the Coastal Conference. Kickoff from Wilbur Sasser Field is set for 7:30 p.m. The winner will get the survivor of No. 1 Western Alamance and No. 5 Jacksonville in next week’s East Regional final.
“I think the third round, you have people that there’s not a lot of mistakes there as far as who’s there,” Southern Nash head coach Brian Foster said. “From that standpoint, I guess the third round could be a little more intense. I don’t know if it’s more intense or just the fact that by that time, people have been weeded out. You’re going to be playing a pretty good team.”
To that point, the teams responsible for Southern Nash and Havelock’s sole losses are continuing play in their respective brackets this week. The Firebirds were defeated 35-0 by defending 4-AA champion Wake Forest during the nonconference slate, while Havelock took a 26-21 loss in Week 3 to Wallace-Rose Hill. The Bulldogs, who won the last 1-AA title before realignment bumped them to 2-A this season, get their own third-round game at Elizabeth City Northeastern. Wake Forest gets Raleigh Sanderson in the third round of the 4-AA bracket.
While Southern Nash is expected to show up with its vintage double-wing attack on offense, the Rams under first-year head coach Caleb King will offer a spread package that is just as adept at throwing the football as they are at running it. Quarterback Zach Sabdo is a classic pocket passer with the accuracy to match, throwing for 3,459 yards and 40 TDs through the air. Sabdo, the owner of a 71.6 percent completion percentage, has only thrown five interceptions. His 15 rushing attempts — through sacks or otherwise — have gone for negligible yardage.
Havelock dispatched its first two playoff foes, Burlington Williams and Fayetteville E.E. Smith, by identical 56-7 scores.
“They just have a lot of team speed,” Foster said. “A lot of their speed has good size. On defense, they get to the ball. Offensively, they do a lot of different formations and try to go at a quick pace. It will be a challenge for us, but I think we’ll be a challenge for them, too. It’s an interesting game and an interesting matchup.”
Junior Cameron Hutchinson (898 yards, 17 TDs) and senior Khalil Barrett (864 yards, 12 TDs) are Havelock’s primary ball carriers. The backs are also heavily involved in the passing game, with Barrett (65 receptions, 800 yards, 11 TDs) and Hutchinson (46 receptions, 614 yards, 9 TDs) leading the way. Past that, Justin Hoover (40 receptions, 581 yards, 7 TDs) and Welton Spottsville (34 receptions, 512 yards, 5 TDs) can also get involved after the catch.
Foster said his secondary would not be given any special attention this week in advance of Havelock’s approach. Southern Nash practiced Thursday morning before players departed to spend time with family in the afternoon.
“I think any time you dwell on something more, usually something else comes back to hurt you,” he said. “We try to tell our guys that. You don’t want to give up big plays, but that’s every week. Just do what you’re coached to do and what we’ve done for certain formations and situations. I think our guys will be in position. It’s just a matter if we can make the plays or not.”
Despite the difference in philosophies, Foster said the intent of both attacks are similar.
“They sort of do what we do, just in a different type of offense,” he said. “They try to get their best players the ball in different ways, sort of like what we do with ‘Bam’ (running back Zonovan Knight) and Kendrick (Bell). People can’t overload the outside because they’ll run inside, and you can’t overload the inside because they’ll go outside. They do the same thing in the passing game. They pass and get those guys out in space. They throw some screens. If you look at their stats, (Barrett and Hutchinson) are good football players.”
Southern Nash is expected to rely on the tried-and-true formula of Knight and Bell, with supplementary carries from a number of options. Knight has run for 1,712 yards and 23 TDs, while Bell has marched for 1,350 yards and 25 TDs.
Defensively, Havelock alternates between odd- and even-man fronts and joins the Firebirds as a unit that can turn opposing offenses over. The Rams have a +23 turnover margin, having only given it away eight times all season. On the other side, Southern Nash has caused a whopping 42 turnovers to go along with three blocked punts.
Johnquarius Hatten, Tyiyon Johnson and middle linebacker Solomon Beligotti lead the Rams in tackles. For Southern Nash, senior Hunter Perry leads a unit that has produced 52.5 sacks in 2017. Perry’s 12.5 quarterback takedowns pace the unit. Quinton Cooley, a sophomore, is a potential game-changer on special teams and on defense. Senior Dae’One Wilkins also lurks in the linebacking unit for a Southern Nash squad that enters as healthy as it has been all season.
At this point, Foster’s demeanor and approach to this season and program is locked in. It hasn’t changed, and won’t change.
“If you’re trying to change a whole lot of stuff, you’re in bad shape,” Foster said of the third round. “We’re going to do what we believe in and what the kids believe in and see what happens.”