Statesville’s offense was sputtering. Despite putting up 17 points in the first half, the Greyhounds managed just six yards of offense in their first two possessions of the second half while West Rowan was able to cut their lead to just one score.
If the Hounds were going to win their third consecutive North Piedmont Conference championship, they were going to need their defense.
And their defense delivered.
Statesville’s defense forced three Falcons turnovers in their final four possessions as the Greyhounds (6-1, 5-0 NPC) shut down West Rowan (4-3, 4-1 NPC) to win 17-10 and claim their third straight NPC crown.
“I’m really proud of the way the guys came through the season,” Statesville head coach Randall Gusler said. “We’ve had to go through all these things and the guys just keep coming in and playing hard on Friday nights. It’s a great thing.”
In their four years in the NPC under the most recent realignment, the Greyhounds lost just two games, a pair of losses to South Iredell in 2017 and 2018, while winning the other 18 games. They also finished ahead of West Rowan in all four seasons, leading to a fair amount of animosity between the two programs that bled out onto the field on Thursday night.
Players had to be separated by officials numerous times in the second half, with one of the skirmishes coming close to turning into a fight with potential punches being thrown. No ejections were made.
Following the game, coaches had to come between the two teams to make sure the words being exchanged between the two sides didn’t escalate any further. The Greyhound players settled for just waving goodbye to their opponents as they walked off the field.
“They felt like they should have been able to beat us the last two years and we’ve been able to come out on top,” Gusler said. “That creates a lot of animosity, but in the end, it’s just two quality programs playing for a conference championship.”
However, in the early going of the game, it didn’t look like it was going to be as close as it ended up being.
The Greyhounds raced out to a 17-0 lead, scoring on three of their first four possessions, on the legs of quarterback Zamari Stevenson.
The speedy sophomore scored on two quarterback power runs, the first from 28 yards out and the second from 70 yards away. However, it was after the 70-yarder that the Greyhounds offense went quiet.
In those first four drives, Statesville racked up 189 yards. They had just 62 in their final seven possessions.
“That’s a really great defensive line that they’ve got,” Gusler said. “I feel blessed that we were able to move the ball the way we did early on.”
Despite the quiet second half, Stevenson turned in another quality night, finishing with 115 rushing yards and two touchdowns on five carries while throwing for another 102 yards.
“(Stevenson) played his heart out,” Gusler said. “Their coach came across at the end of the game and said ‘That number 2 is a dog...he’s a ballplayer.’”
On the defensive side, it was the takeaways that ultimately gave the Greyhounds the boost they needed to win.
Amontae White came up with two clutch interceptions in the second half including one that his head coach called the best defensive play of the season as the junior cornerback was able to rip the ball away from the Falcon receiver to set his team up with great field position.
“That was an awesome play,” Gusler said.
Late in the fourth quarter, the Statesville secondary got their third interception when Kamarri Daniels stepped in front of a fourth down heave towards the goal line.
“Coach Stewart and my defensive coaches did an awesome job tonight,” Gusler said. “They kept everybody in position and the guys stepped up.”
As conference champions, the Greyhounds are now locked in to a playoff spot in the 3A West bracket. Due to the limited playoff format this year, however, it is unknown if their 6-1 record will get them into the top half of the bracket to host a first round playoff game.
“There won’t be any cakewalks,” Gusler said. “We just have to wait and see what rolls out this weekend.”