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In a flash, the best players from the state of South Carolina got to experience Saturday in the 82nd annual Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas in Spartanburg, South Carolina, what so many high school defenses in North Carolina have for the past three seasons.
Southern Nash High senior Zonovan Knight took a handoff from North Carolina quarterback Kennique Bonner-Steward of Charlotte Hough on the first play of the Tarheels’ second possession of the second quarter. Knight cut left behind the North Carolina offensive line, turned the corner and saw open field ahead of him, save for a pair of Sandlappers’ defenders. But Knight shredded whatever angle the South Carolina players seemed to have, rendering them into what seemed like a slow-motion pursuit as he exploded past them on a 61-yard run that stood as the Tarheels’ only touchdown.
Knight finished with a game-high 151 yards in the game that ended in 10-10 tie, the first deadlock in the Shrine Bowl since 1948. He was an obvious choice for the North Carolina Offensive MVP award.
“It was a great feeling having a chance to play,” said Knight, who will sign with North Carolina State this week.
Knight assured the Sandlappers were the best players he’s ever faced.
“I feel like they did have some good players. I hadn’t taken any hits like that in a while,” he said.
Knight, who hadn’t played in a game since exiting Southern Nash’s second-round state 3-A playoff game in the first quarter quarter with an ankle injury, one that still bothered him Saturday. He had to leave the game on two occasions.
“I was really worried about his ankle because he hadn’t done anything since the playoff game or rehabbed a whole lot,” said Southern Nash head coach Brian Foster, who was at the game at Gibbs Stadium on the campus of Wofford College. “He’s still not 100 percent so I was really proud of him for that because a lot of kids probably wouldn’t have even tried it.”
Knight said that it was difficult to play on the sore ankle but he told North Carolina head coach Steven Davis of Greensboro Dudley that he wanted to play.
Knight’s long TD run and extra-point kick by Greensboro Page’s Matthew Chmil tied the score a 7-7 with 10:39 left in the second quarter. Chmil kicked a 19-yard field goal just before halftime to give the Tarheels their only lead. However, South Carolina tied the score on Michael Hayes’ 25-yard field goal with 2:05 to play, leading to just the fifth tie in Shrine Bowl history.
Knight, who had 24 carries, averaged 6.3 yards per carry and accounted for the game’s longest play from scrimmage. But that’s not all he did well, pointed out Foster.
“I thought he blocked well and ran the ball hard because he took some licks now!” Foster said.
For Knight, the week served as a chance to get to know some of his future N.C. State teammates. Knight will sign his National Letter of Intent with the Wolfpack on Wednesday, Dec. 19, and, after graduating early from Southern Nash, enroll at State for the spring semester in January.
Four other Shrine Bowl players from North Carolina — defensive lineman Savion Jackson of Clayton, linebacker Drake Thomas of Wake Forest Heritage, tight end Kam Walker of Canton Pisgah and Roxboro Person defensive tackle — have committed to the Wolfpack and, like Knight, plan on enrolling early.
Knight said he hung out mostly with his future Wolfpack teammates during the week in Spartanburg.
Besides making many new friends, Knight said that visiting the Shriners Hospital for Children in Greenville, South Carolina, was “definitely the highlight of the week.”
“Sometimes I take somethings for granted but some of those kids have issues they’ll never be able to overcome,” he said.
That level of introspection wasn’t surprising to Foster, who said: “I think he’s a kid who thinks about things and is humble and appreciative of stuff.”
Knight was appreciative for one last opportunity to wear his Firebirds helmet after his career, which saw him break the all-time and single-season rushing marks at Southern Nash, ended prematurely. Knight had to leave the game that the Firebirds eventually lost 57-56 to Eastern Alamance for their only 2018 defeat.
“I’m missed my last game so I felt like this was my last chance as a high school player to make my mark,” he said.
He definitely did that.