by Chris Hunt
With a little more than two minutes remaining in the second round of the Class 4A state playoffs, it must have been disheartening for Hopewell football players to watch Vance defensive back Ryan Stewart intercept a pass and sprint into their end zone. Stewart’s defensive score not only put the Cougars ahead, 17-0, it also, for all intents and purposes, ended Hopewell’s 2010 season.
At that point, no one would have blamed the Titans if they ran out the clock and headed home.
Then again, as the tough-minded Titans proved all season long, that just wasn’t their style.
Facing difficult odds, Hopewell was far from backing down. On the ensuing kickoff, Hopewell denied Vance its exclamation point when Titan kick returner Alex Holbrook avoided a possible safety, breaking free from a tackle and sprinting 60 yards down the sideline. Holbrook’s refusal to go down set up a 15-yard touchdown run by reserve quarterback Chandler Chase with 1 minute, 18 seconds remaining.
The Titans did not convert the following onside kick, but the attempt was proof that they intended to fight until the final seconds ticked off the clock. With possession of the ball, Vance was able to run out the clock for a 17-7 victory, but they still couldn’t force Hopewell to concede until the post-game handshakes.
“I’m very proud of my team,” said Hopewell coach Chris Rust. “We never game up. We faced a lot of adversity this season, but we kept fighting back.”
In hindsight, it wasn’t just the final seconds of the playoff loss that showed the Titans’ fighting spirit. Hopewell (8-5, 3-3 in the I-MECK 4A conference) entered the game as underdogs, still nursing wounds from a humbling 34-14 loss to Vance on Oct. 29. In that game, Vance’s lightning-quick defense, which has surrendered just 15 points per game this season, held Hopewell’s offensive starters to just one score and 168 yards total offense. Once again, no one would have blinked had the Titans rolled over to the favored Cougars and settled for a modest eight-win season with a first round playoff victory under their belt.
That, however, wasn’t going to be the case.
With both teams playing for their first quarterfinals appearance in school history, a defensive struggle would ensue. Under tremendous pressure, neither passing attack threw for more than 72 yards. Most of the yards gained were on the ground at the price of a bone-jarring hit. The Vance offense also struggled, scoring just 10 points on shortened drives set up by Titan turnovers.
“I thought our defense played well,” said Rust. “I figured if we could score, our defense would do a good job shutting them down. We just made too many mistakes.”
Hopewell’s playoff loss to Vance was eerily similar to their 2010 season. The Titans were a team prone to mistakes but one that never stopped fighting its way back into contention. A 6-1 start to the season was punctuated with a thrilling overtime victory at West Charlotte, the first win over the Lions in Hopewell’s 10-year history.
But with things going so well, Hopewell stumbled midway through the season with a meaningful game against conference rival Mooresville, unexpectedly losing 19-3. Losses to conference champ Mallard Creek and second-place Vance followed, dropping Hopewell into the fourth place in the standings.
Suddenly, Hopewell was staring down a possible four-game losing streak to end the regular season if it lost to hometown rival North Meck, which was excited about the chance to send the Titans into the postseason with questions about their confidence. But the Titans approached the rivalry game – a game where anything could happen – the only way they knew how. A determined Hopewell squad burst out of the locker room swinging that night and won its fourth consecutive Battle for the Shield, 33-28. The Titans followed the victory over the Vikings with a decisive 35-6 win at Garinger in the first round of the playoffs.
“Our seniors had a good run for four years,” said Rust. “We won (32) games with those seniors and they have a lot to be proud of.”
That night at Vance, Hopewell running back Dondre Lewis-Freeman was one of the 30 seniors who walked off the field for the final time in a Hopewell uniform. Lewis-Freeman finished his career with 2,750 rushing yards and 34 touchdowns. He hopes to continue his football career at the college level but said he’ll always remember the last night he wore his Titan uniform.
“This season meant everything to me,” said a somber Lewis-Freeman after the playoff loss. “This was my last year, and we had a lot of seniors on the team. We wanted to go out the right way, and that meant winning a playoff game. And that’s what we did.”
Next season, Hopewell must fill key positions with young, unproven players. Along with Lewis Freeman, quarterback Cole Blythe, who threw for more than 1,600 yards, is set to graduate. So are the Titans top-four receivers, Leroy Jackson, Jason Williams, Brandon Bennett and Holbrook, and three starting offensive linemen, Ritchie King, Lyndon Johnson and Kevin Auten. Defensive standouts Michael Russell, Givonne Evans, Nick Watson and Alex Carmichael, TyJuan Hill and Anthony Bynum are also seniors.
There are some talent players returning to Hopewell next fall. Tough-minded fullback Denzil Heath is expected to take over tailback duties for Lewis-Freeman. Defensive lineman Tevin Stevenson has college Division I potential and sophomore Jason Sparrow was a pleasant surprise on the offensive line.
Still, it’ll be a tall order to replace the Class of 2011’s production on the field. More important, however, future players will also have to live up to the fighting spirit set by the 2010 Titans.