CHARLOTTE – When Charlotte Catholic coach Jim Oddo, for whom the Cougars home field is named, retired following the 2013 regional championship loss to Dudley and after 41 years and over 500 wins on the sidelines, the Cougar faithful had to have been a little nervous.
Catholic had years of success and a great football tradition, but with a new coach taking over things would surely be different.
And they have been.
But the Cougars have actually won more under assistant-turned-head coach Mike Brodowicz, who on Dec. 14 will bring the Cougars to their fourth state championship game in the past five seasons under his leadership.
Since Brodowicz succeeded Oddo, the Cougars are a remarkable 72-5 (94 percent win percentage) and have won two titles (2015 and 2017) with unbeaten records.
In Oddo’s 41 years, the Cougars made numerous trips to the regional finals but won just three titles.
Even with all of the recent success, before this season started, Brodowicz was saying this team could be his best and most complete, even after last year’s state unbeaten title run.
But things didn’t start off all that well.
The Cougars lost 6-0 to unbeaten private-school champion Charlotte Christian and struggled offensively in wins over Country Day and Monroe. After the 21-14 win over the Redhawks that required a defensive stand late to win it, the Cougars went three games – albeit against Sun Valley and Weddington – where the offense didn’t get out of the 20s.
But since beating Piedmont 41-0, Catholic has looked great.
“We had to adjust to losing Milan Howard, that was one thing. We also lost Garrett McKernon, one of our leading pass catchers last year (13 catches, 382 yards and six touchdowns in 2017). He was our 6-foot-3 vertical threat that allows us in our base offense to slide back there for a quick, easy throw,” Brodowicz said. “But things did start to click. Then we started putting Adam Robbe in and getting him the ball in that tight end spot. He’s been our starting safety, but when we started him in there and decoying some, blocking some and getting him some looks.
“It took us about five weeks to figure it all out, but after that we’ve literally been off and running since then.”
The offense has really picked up steam as the Cougars are averaging 39.1 points per game over the past eight games.
Running back Lamagea McDowell has scored 11 of his 16 touchdowns over the past eight games, and the run game in general has picked up, as well.
During that eight-game stretch, McDowell, who Brodowicz describes as his battering ram, is averaging nearly 70 rushing yards per game. Sophomore Paul Neel (65.5 rush yards per game and eight touchdowns) has emerged from the 2-back role as the season has wore on and senior Michael Neel (51.6 rush yards per game to go with 22 receptions, 520 receiving yards and 14 total touchdowns) has gotten more comfortable and moved back to the 4-back position that he’s starred in the past three years.
Together, they have provided a three-headed rushing attack the Cougars have leaned on.
Quarterback Chris Walton has had some big moments and has a nice connection with Robbe when the Cougars take to the air. In the regional final win over Kings Mountain, Walton threw for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
While the offense may have taken a while to work into shape, the defense has been stellar throughout.
The Catholic defense has given up just 21 points through four playoff games and allow just 6.4 points per game over the course of the season.
Sophomore Liam Barbee, playing varsity for the first season, leads the team with 110 tackles, but there have been many contributors to the stinginess of the defense.
Senior Nick King has 16.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. He is third on the team with 79 tackles. Jacob Schachte (92 tackles and three interceptions), Ty Foley (79 tackles), Brian Jacobs (75 tackles) and Kevin Coss (75 tackles and 10.5 sacks) are among the team leaders in tackles. They team with playmakers Chris James, Ari Rodriguez, Andrew Della Mea, Billy Brewer and Robbe (six interceptions) to form a very tough unit.
“I thought we could be really good, and we have been,” Brodowicz said. “This is the most consistently good defense I’ve been a part of. We have three D-1 players on our line in Ari Rodriguez, Kevin Coss and Nick King. They get after the ball….We have the depth there to be really physical up front and it allows our linebackers, especially if they don’t contain all of those other guys.”
In the championship game against Jacksonville, the Cougars will face a very similar style to what they see in practice every day.
The Cardinals are 11-1, and rely heavily on defense and running the football.
Defensively, Jacksonville gives up about 12 points per game on the season, but that has increased to 24.3 per game in the playoffs.
Offensively, the Cardinals average 8.7 yards per carry and nearly boast three 1,000-yard rushers in Graham Brinker (1,202 rush yards and 18 touchdowns), quarterback Justyn Benton (1,109 rush yards and 15 touchdowns) and Kijier Finister (906 rush yards and 16 touchdowns).
Benton completes less than 47 percent of his passes, so if the Cougars can slow the ground game, they can get the Cardinals in some bad situations. He’s thrown 15 touchdowns against just four interceptions.
The game, which is the first meeting between the two teams, will likely come down to who runs it better, flips field position and commits the fewer amount of turnovers, and that’s something both teams do exceptionally well.
“They are a team that mirror us,” Brodowicz said. “They are a team that knows who they want to be. They only run one or two formations, but run set plays off that. They do a good job of knowing where you play and make you defend the whole field with a combination of their play calls and packages. We need to stop their running and especially their option game.
“But I think whoever controls special teams and sets up good field position will have the key. If we can pin them back or flip with our kicking game, which Drew Morais has done a great job of these last few weeks. If we have a short field, we’ll have a big advantage.”