It’s Round 2 for No-Frills Titans
by Staff Writer
by Cliff Mehrtens
Hopewell High’s up-and-down -football regular season ended with a state playoff berth secured on the final day.
The Titans snagged the lowest seed possible – No. 16 – in the Class 4A bracket. Some schools might have -celebrated by treating the players with a charter bus ride to the playoff game, which in Hopewell’s case, was up the mountains to face Asheville T.C. -Roberson.
“You know, that just didn’t fit our team’s personality,” Hopewell coach David Johnson said. “It might have been nice, but we decided to use the (school) activity buses. Of course, when they were struggling going about 20 mph up the mountain, I was wondering. But it was a fun ride home. We wanted to keep our routine.”
The Titans shocked fourth-seeded Roberson with a 14-9 victory, and then it didn’t matter how they rode home. Being soaked in adrenaline makes any ride a blast.
With the win, Hopewell (5-6) earned a second-round playoff game at -Monroe Sun Valley (6-5) on Nov. 11.
Before a practice this week, Hopewell coaches informed players that they had a chance to make a distinctive mark in school history – no Titans squad has ever won a second-round playoff game.
Hopewell is playing its best football at the right time. The Titans’ 4-6 regular-season record was a bit deceiving, because three of the losses were to excellent teams: Mallard Creek (11-0), Mooreville (10-2) and Ardrey Kell (8-3).
The loss to Mooresville was a stinger because Hopewell led most of the game before falling, 22-19, on a last-minute field goal. The Titans also lost 31-25 in overtime to Vance in the second-to-last game of the regular season. It meant they had to beat rival North Mecklenburg in the finale on Oct. 28, which they did, 33-6.
Their playoff fate hung in the balance, based on the results of other games being played that night.
Johnson took the positive route. He gathered his players in the end zone after they beat North Meck and told them to show up for practice the next morning.
“We’re going to work hard,” he said, “and we’re going to win our first playoff game. Then, we’re going to win our second playoff game.”
Johnson was then drowned out by cheering Titans lofting their helmets skyward.
The first-round playoff victory, running back Denzel Heath said, occurred because the Titans didn’t worry about records or previous games.
“No one gave up,” Heath said. “Everyone was blocking hard. We couldn’t go that far and not do our best. We wanted to go up there and shock the world.”
Hopewell, trailing 9-7, got the ball with six minutes, 28 seconds left in the game. The Titans drove 80 yards, converted two critical fourth-down passes and scored on fullback Rashad Williams’ 1-yard run with 43 seconds left.
“We went through a lot of experiences in the regular season,” Johnson said. “I looked in their eyes before that last drive, and you could tell they could do it. We were in that situation before, against Hough (which netted a last-second, winning field goal).”
Heath, who has been picked to play in the Shrine Bowl, rushed for 126 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries.
The defense was stout against Roberson, and allowed fewer than 10 points for the second consecutive week. Defensive tackle Tevin Stevenson blocked two field-goal attempts.
Hopewell is making up for lost time. Johnson, previously an assistant at Berry, was hired just before summer practice began. He didn’t have the benefit of installing his system during the offseason, so he and the players had to adjust as the season wore on.
Johnson wanted to use a wide-open passing system, but it didn’t fit his players’ strengths. Or the calendar.
“We just didn’t have enough practice time, and in no way is that an excuse,” Johnson said. “We had to shrink down our passing playbook. A lot of it was me adapting, but it was 50-50 with the players, too. We met each other halfway. It took a while to figure it all out. But if I would’ve come here and tried to fit a circle peg into a square hole, well, that would’ve been all on me.”
Instead, Johnson thinks his late start means the Titans are peaking now, when other teams might have done that in
Weeks 7 or 8 of the regular season.
“Our focus was there,” Johnson said. “We had another great week of practice.”