High School Sports

Season on the line

Northwestern coach Jimmy Wallace calls a play during practice Thursday.
Northwestern coach Jimmy Wallace calls a play during practice Thursday.

It wasn't your normal Thursday morning at Northwestern High School.

School was out for the Thanksgiving holidays, but the football players began arriving a little after 8 for practice at 9.

Some looked like they weren't yet awake. Some were solemn because they knew what was waiting for them tonight. Others were wide open like Jim Carey on laughing gas.

But they wouldn't want to be anywhere else. It was their final practice before traveling to Duncan tonight to take to take on the state's No. 1 team and nationally ranked Byrnes Rebels in the Class AAAA Division I semifinals.

It might have been the Trojans' most important practice this season. They will have a busy night, especially the four players who start in the defensive backfield.

Jonathon Spurgeon is the free safety, Shaquavis Smith the strong safety, Jonathan Shelton the left cornerback and Chris Long the right cornerback. They will face one of the state's most prolific offenses, Byrnes' wide-open spread set that has accounted for 5,376 yards and 555 points.

It was installed by former coach Bobby Bentley, who left after last season with four state championships under his belt to be the head coach at Clinton's Presbyterian College. But by no means has the offense changed under his replacement, Chris Miller. And the quarterback running it this season is Chas Dodd, Bentley's stepson.

"We've played teams that like to put the ball in the air and we've handled the pressure well,'' said Bobby Page, Northwestern's defensive backs coach. "I don't think we've given up any home-run balls this year.

"What we have to do to have a chance is not give up any big plays. We've emphasized to our two seniors, Spurgeon and Shelton, that they have a unique opportunity to knock of the top team in the state and they have to be leaders on the field.''

Spurgeon and Shelton have accepted that responsibility. It's not like they haven't seen an outstanding passing game this season. Every day at practice they line up against Northwestern's first-team offense and try to stop quarterback Will King.

Northwestern's new offensive coordinator, Kyle Richardson, came in and made a major change. In the past, Northwestern tried to be balanced on offense, but usually ran slightly more than passing. With Richardson's "Air Raid'' offense in place and clicking, running has taken a back seat to passing.

King has thrown for 3,163 yards and 41 touchdowns this season. Byrnes' three quarterbacks -- Dodd with 2,750 yards and 30 TDs gets the majority of playing time -- have passed for 3,667 yards and 42 TDs.

"There will be a lot of pressure on us to perform at the top of our game,'' Spurgeon said. "We've watched them on video and have seen that they like to run receivers across the middle and pinch defense backs, make them run into each other to get free.

"The good thing for us is we see a very good passing game every day at practice. That can only help us going into this game. But it'll still be a big challenge.''

Northwestern has passed nearly every challenge this season. Except for a 51-48 triple-overtime loss to Charlotte Country Day in their opening game, the Trojans have made few mistakes. They have won 12 straight games. The most telling sign is the penalty situation.

Northwestern has not been hurt by untimely flags thrown by the referees. They have been penalized only 60 times for 458 yards. The Trojans have been called for only one personal foul all season and have no unsportsmanlike conduct calls against them.

And the four defensive backs have had an outstanding season as a group. Long has seven interceptions, Spurgeon four, Shelton three and Smith two. Lielvin Whitlock is the nickel back and has three interceptions.

"We are prepared for Byrnes,'' Shelton said. "I'm looking forward to playing them because they have some great wide receivers.

"Our defensive line and linebackers do a good job giving us time to make our reads. We're going to need that to slow Byrnes. One thing we're going to do is try and disguise our coverages and keep them guessing.''

This is the big one. The state championship game is icing on the cake. Wallace is back after ending his 18-year run to oversee the Northwestern's athletics department for two seasons.

He said Thursday that this year's group of players have put the Trojans back on the football map.

It's been a good experience for the seniors who endured 0-12 and 6-6 seasons. Northwestern had to forfeit four wins in 2005.

"It feels great to have this opportunity my senior year,'' Shelton said. "It's great for all of our seniors. Most of us will never play football again after this year, so this is special.''

A special thought on a special day, one that took the Trojans players away from their families on Thanksgiving morning so they could be with the family they have built on Northwestern's practice field.

"I'm going to practice really hard,'' Spurgeon said Thursday morning. "Then I'm going home to be with my family so we can be thankful for what we have.

"They are holding up dinner for me and it's going to be a good day. And you can be sure everybody at my house will be talking football.''