In large part, Charlotte Catholic’s 23-7 victory over Southern Nash in the NCHSAA 3A championship mirrored a season in which uncertainty led to the ultimate affirmation and some history for the Cougars.
By now, much has been written on the Cougars’ early-season struggles. Their offense couldn’t move the ball well in games against Good Counsel (they scored 0 points), Archbishop Rummel (7 points), Weddington (0), Marvin Ridge (14) and lowly Sun Valley (20).
Worse, at one point they were sitting at 2-3 on the season after Weddington beat the wheels off of the Cougars for their first conference loss in a decade.
That’s when the sky was falling.
To outsiders, the same thing could have been happening in the first half of the state championship game.
After stopping Southern Nash on the opening drive, sophomore Jimmy Brewer fumbled the handoff on the first play from scrimmage.
Then Paul Neel got stopped on Southern Nash’s 2-yard line for a turnover on downs. Later, after their best drive of the day to that point, quarterback Harrison Barnett was intercepted near the endzone.
The Cougar defense, like they had all season, was great, limiting a potent Southern Nash offense to just 112 yards.
Despite 140 yards of offense, the Cougars committed two turnovers and entered halftime tied at 0.
“I felt really good about us at halftime because we hurt ourselves more than they had stopped us,” Charlotte Catholic coach Mike Brodowicz said. “They made a goal-line stand on us, but I didn’t think that was our forte.”
Neel and Brewer led the Cougars on the opening drive of the second half, but they stalled again at the Southern Nash 13 before Cole Knapp’s 31-yard field goal gave Catholic a 3-0 lead.
On the ensuing drive, Wake Forest commit Quinton Cooley, who came in averaging more than 200 yards rushing per game, scored from 1-yard out to cap a nine-play, 77-yard drive.
This is when the game turned, much like the Cougars’ season, following the humiliating 45-0 loss to Weddington that made them re-evaluate certain things, Brodowicz has said.
Since that game, the Cougars went on to win 10 straight.
Catholic, having played a number of low scoring, close games during the season, would never panic.
That seasoning paid off as the Cougars would open up the game in the decisive fourth quarter.
Neel’s 39-yard scoring run early in the final period capped a nine-play Cougar drive and gave them a 10-7 lead they would never let go.
“I thought the drive that answered the score was a huge drive for us,” Brodowicz said. “Our offense has been maligned most of the year about the way they performed, but I thought in the last half of the season they really picked it up and became a Charlotte Catholic offensive line and running backs.”
In the fourth quarter alone, the Cougars ran for 104 yards of their 268 rushing yards for the game. Neel (who finished with 27 carries, 156 yards and two touchdowns) and Brewer (17 carries, 85 yards and a score) earned individual accolades as Brewer was the offensive MVP and Neel earned the game’s Most Outstanding Player honor.
“We knew we had played really good teams and that if we made a few changes we could get things going, that’s what we did and we haven’t been stopped since,” Neel said. “I knew I would break one eventually, I just needed to keep pounding it in there. It was the same with Jimmy.”
While the offense took time to get going, the defense never allowed Cooley and the Southern Nash offense get going.
“That Cooley kid is a
really good back,” Brodowicz said. “It was a lot of hard work
…You saw how powerful all of their running backs were. There were a
couple of times I thought the play was dead, but Cooley bounced it
out and the quarterback did a nice job on the bootleg. We had to be
very disciplined on defense, and I thought our guys did a great job
of sticking to their gaps.”
The Cougars finished with 10 games where they allowed 10 points or less and the defense ultimately played a vital role all year.
“It’s amazing,” said Defensive MVP Liam Barbee. “We’ve been doubted all year and we’ve had some adversity but we came back and it feels great to be back on top. We’ve had to step up in some key situations this year and we’re used to that. The defense rallied and we stepped up. The goal was to stop the run. The D-line did a great job of hitting their gaps, the linebackers did a great job of filling. We tried to take them out of their game.”
The Cougars did that and stand on top once again for the third straight year. It’s the first time in school history that they’ve won three straight titles, and that’s saying a lot for this storied program.
“This is something our coaching staff and our players really rallied around with a chance to do something that’s never been done at Charlotte Catholic,” Brodowicz said. “(That) is hard because (former) coach (Jim) Oddo has done everything else at Catholic including wins and what he did for the number of the years he did. It was kind of a rallying point.
“This is special. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet, but it’s special to do something that’s never been done here before.”