Nation Ford has only 12 seniors on its varsity football roster.
The team is filled with juniors who were thrust into big roles as sophomores when a slew of injuries ravaged the team.
Head coach Michael Allen said then that the experience would be valuable for his younger players, but the team would still have to work hard to reach the sky-high ceiling he believes it has.
Well, a 17-13 victory over Catawba Ridge Friday night to mark Nation Ford’s first-ever win in three attempts over their in-town rivals, and the Falcons 2-1 record, shows they are heading in the right direction.
It wasn’t a perfect game for Nation Ford.
The Falcons carried only a 3-0 lead into halftime, and Catawba Ridge had a chance at the end of the game to drive down the field for a game-winning touchdown. Nation Ford had held a 17-0 lead with less than three minutes left.
But Allen won’t complain.
“I just felt great,” Allen said. “I thought our kids played outstanding until the very end. The character of a good team is when they can buck up even when the times get tough.”
Both of Nation Ford’s touchdowns were scored by juniors: a pair of second-half touchdown passes from quarterback Kaden Barnette to wide receiver Josh Ameo. Barnette completed 23 of 31 passes for 251 yards, while Ameo had six catches for 61 yards. Sophomore wide receiver Jaydon Scott had five catches for 44 yards.
Barnette’s ability to move with the ball allowed him to extend plays and find open receivers downfield.
“First half, we started a little shaky on offense,” Barnette said. “After a good time in the locker room at halftime, we ended up putting things together. Had some dudes make some really good plays for me and that’s what we did.”
Young players have played key roles all season for the Falcons. It was a Barnette-Ameo connection for a game-winning two-point conversion that gave Nation Ford a 29-28 victory over Indian Land earlier this season.
“We had a bunch of sophomores that started last year that are juniors this year,” Allen said. “That experience in that 10-game, 11-game run with the one game in the playoffs, it has a lot to do. Even when you make the playoffs, it kind of bleeds into your offseason. That experience last year had a lot to do with the success our guys had tonight.”
Catawba Ridge offensive struggles
It’s been a tough stretch offensively for Catawba Ridge.
For the second week in a row, the Catawba Ridge defense held its opponent to three points in the first half; the Copperheads lost both games.
After getting outscored 31-0 in the second half of last week’s game against Charlotte Christian, Catawba Ridge found itself down 17-0 with less than three minutes left in Friday night’s game.
The Copperheads had their chances early in the game, but two missed field goals and an interception inside the Nation Ford 30-yard line killed momentum.
Even with the late push the team made at the end, head coach Zac Lendyak wasn’t all too pleased with how his team played.
“Just missed opportunities,” Lendyak said. “We got a bunch of guys that are going to have to figure out how they want to go about doing things moving forward. When you hang your hat playing a certain way for years, and teams take that away. We weren’t able to adjust to that tonight, and it’s the same thing Charlotte Christian did to us in the second half (last week). We need to get back to the drawing board and figure out what we want to do and what kind of team we want to be this year.”
Catawba Ridge rotated quarterbacks Davin Latimer and Andrew Turner for the second-straight game.
Turner led the team on two touchdown drives in the final six minutes of the game, tossing a touchdown passes to Jackson Burger and Brady Ambrose to reduce the deficit to 17-13 with 1:25 left in the game.
But time ran out on the Copperheads.
Turner completed 13 of his 24 passes for 157 yards to go with the two touchdowns, while Latimer completed nine of his 21 throws for 67 yards and an interception.
Even with Turner’s heroics at the end, Lendyak didn’t see too much to like from his offense. Of the Copperheads’ 311 net offensive yards, almost half came within the final six minutes of the game.
“Obviously, in that last little bit, there was some electricity and that’s what (Andrew Turner) brings,” Lendyak said. “He’s good at scrambling around and freelancing a little bit. To be honest, offensively, I didn’t see a whole lot of good until the last two minutes, and we got a lot to work on.”
Nation Ford’s defense puts out strong showing
The key to Nation Ford’s win was stellar defense.
The defense came up with big stops.
An interception by senior defensive back Nick Campbell late in the first half stopped Catawba Ridge. The defense also made big plays on third downs that turned potential touchdown drives into missed field goals or punts.
Barnette said the effort the defense showed had a ripple effect throughout the team, and gave the offense time to get rolling.
All Allen wanted his team to do was to keep up its intensity. He said he knew how well his defense could play, and he was more than certain the defense could hold strong.
“Stay the course, man, stay the course,” Allen said. “Defense was playing lights out, man. So it was really important for us to do that tonight. Our offense sputtered a little bit in the first half, but we got it cranking, and we got our energy up in the second half. We were bound and determined to do what we came here to do Friday night.”
Nation Ford advances to 2-1 on the season and will travel to District 3 Stadium to play Northwestern. Catawba Ridge falls to 1-2 and will look to avoid its first three-game losing streak as they head on the road to play Charlotte’s Ardrey Kell High School. Both games are scheduled to kick off Sept. 8 at 7:30 p.m.