By Lee Noles
MONROE – When Charlotte Catholic and Monroe played each other on Sept. 21, the Cougars needed a fourth-quarter touchdown and critical stops from its stout defense in the second half to preserve a 28-21 road win.
There was no heart-pounding end for the defending state champions this time around as Catholic scored five times, and the defense secured a program-tying fifth shutout of the season in a 42-0 win against Monroe in the second round of the state 3-A playoffs on Nov. 23.
It was the 16th straight home victory for Catholic dating back to the 2016 season, when the Cougars lost to Dudley in the semifinals of the playoffs.
The Cougars entered the second round this season outscoring their opponents by 308 points on their way to a 12-game winning streak. But even with the recent dominant play, the win back in September against the Redhawks still lingered with Catholic coach Mike Brodowicz. The Cougars jumped out to a 14-7 first quarter advantage in the earlier match-up only to see it disappear as Monroe tied the game heading into halftime. Catholic managed to score in the fourth quarter before staving off a rally by the Redhawks to pull out the closest win of the season.
“We used that as motivation,” Brodowicz said of the regular season game. “They put up the most passing and rushing offense of anyone we played this year… We knew they weren’t intimidated by playing Charlotte Catholic… This is the playoffs, and if you don’t win you go home.”
The Cougars get to play another day after jumping on the Redhawks early in their second meeting of the season.
After a solid kickoff return got the ball near midfield, the Cougars ran into trouble when a sack on senior quarterback Chris Walton resulted in a 12-yard loss. Walton responded on the next play by connecting with senior receiver Adam Robbe for an 18-yard catch and a fresh set of downs.
Catholic took full advantage of the opportunity by scoring on a screen pass from Walton to sophomore running back Paul Neel, who followed a wall of blockers for the score.
“If you short field us, the momentum starts to go our way and it starts to snowball,” Brodowicz said. “And for us it starts to become a feeding frenzy.”
The Neel brothers were part of a Catholic ground game that churned out 249 yards on 46 carries. Lamagea McDowell led the way as the junior rushed for a game-high 137 yards and scored once. Michael Neel added 40 yards on 11 carries and Paul Neel scored and the sophomore finished with 38 yards on 8 carries.
Michael Neel and McDowell have each rushed for over 1,000 yards this season, and the Cougar ground attack has amassed 3,340 yards through 13 games. Catholic has rushed for more than 300 yards in three games this season.
The passing attack wasn’t bad either against the Redhawks with Walton throwing for 149 yards on just five completions. Three went for touchdowns, including two to Michael Neel and another to Robbe.
The defense held a Monroe offense, which came in averaging 42 points in its last two wins, scoreless for the first time since a 34-0 loss to Weddington in 2017. Even more, Monroe managed just 24 yards of offense against the relentless Catholic defense.
Nick King led the way as the senior defensive end finished with a team-high six tackles to go along with 2.5 sacks. The Cougar defense pestered Monroe’s passing game all night as they got interceptions from sophomore Liam Barbee and juniors Billy Brewer and Jack Gustafson. Monroe managed just 16 yards in the air, a stark contrast to the last time both teams played as Monroe finished with 364 yards of total offense in their first meeting.
Senior standouts Kevin Cross and Joseph Satori each had five tackles in the playoff game for Catholic.
“They have been our strength all year,” said Brodowicz of his defense, which is allowing 6.3 points per game this year. “They can get after it, and up the middle we are so strong and they play with an attitude. We talk about two things at the beginning of the year. You need to play defense and run the ball, and that is what we hang our hats on.”
In addition to playing seven-time private school state champion Charlotte Christian, which gave Catholic its lone loss this season, the Cougars are also members in the Southern Carolina Conference. The league includes one-loss Weddington as well as Sun Valley and Marvin Ridge. All three teams made the playoffs along with Monroe.
Catholic had to play the Redhawks, Warriors and Spartans in three straight games this season. Brodowicz referred to the trilogy as the gauntlet, and he hopes there is a payoff in the playoffs.
“Those first three games are like what we are going through right now in the playoffs” Brodowicz said. “You have Monroe with their explosive offense and Weddington with (Will Shipley and James Shipley), and Sun Valley you have Sam Howell, who is a top five quarterback … and they are going to have their best game plans, and so you need to have your best game plan. So in a sense, it gets you ready for the playoffs and sets the tone playing against good quality players and coaches.”
Despite being the No. 1-ranked team in the statewide 3A Maxpreps.com poll, Catholic got the No. 3 seed in the playoffs and will likely have to travel the rest of the way.
The Cougars’ Nov. 30 quarterfinal matchup is at unbeaten Huss, who is averaging 37 points per game this season and has six shutouts.
“We are going to have our jobs cut out for us,” Brodowicz said. “We are going to be the underdog ,and I can play the underdog card a bit. They are the higher seed, but it comes down to who can make the bigger play and not turn the ball over in key situations.”