STATESVILLE – It was 12 short weeks ago when some people were a bit befuddled by the 2012 Charlotte Catholic football team.
The Class 3AA Cougars certainly had one of the county’s top players (junior fullback Elijah Hood) on their roster, and they’d plowed through their first two opponents, Class 4AA South Mecklenburg and Providence, by a combined score of 82-7.
But then came a 31-28 Week 3 loss to private Charlotte Country Day, during which Hood looked, by his standards anyway, normal (92 yards rushing) and the defense struggled against dynamic quarterback Michael Radford.
If only for a moment, some people began to wonder – albeit outside the Charlotte Catholic locker room – if the Cougars had enough, from top to bottom, to reach the state title game after the graduation of a multi-talented quarterback, arguably the area’s best dual-threat running back and a massive offensive lineman who’d gone on to join what’s now the nation’s top-ranked college team.
Then, the Cougars proceeded to put all those thoughts to rest.
Since the Country Day loss, Charlotte Catholic has averaged 46 points per game, scoring fewer than 41 on just one occasion, and the defense has been mouthpiece-jarring and opportunistic. Last Friday, the Cougars cemented their status as the best in the West by tearing through big and fast Statesville, 55-19, to accomplish what no Charlotte Catholic team has since 2007: advance to the state championship game.
The win allowed Charlotte Catholic to end its two-year losing streak in the 3AA semifinals after bowing out to Shelby Crest the previous two seasons.
The Cougars (13-1) will face two-time defending state champion Northern Guilford (14-0) for the title on Saturday, Dec. 1, at Wake Forest University’s BB&T Field. Kickoff is 7 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on News 14
“This is what you play for,” longtime Cougars coach Jim Oddo said. “You start out there in August, and it’s a dream. Then, here we are, we’re in the finals. And from the beginning of the year, that was these kids’ focus.”
Beating Statesville was especially sweet for the Cougars, as the graduated star quarterback (Jack Brodowicz), running back (University of Richmond freshman David Herlocker) and offensive lineman (Notre Dame tackle Mark Harrell) watched from the Catholic sidelines and barked support.
They got to see what might’ve been Catholic’s best all-around performance of the season.
The defense was impenetrable, reeling in three interceptions (two by Cam Roberts and one by Tafon Mainsah). And hard hits courtesy of Kevin Kirchmer (more than 120 tackles on the season), Karrington King, Ryan Manion and Jamie Choulas throughout the game appeared to induce Statesville receivers into numerous dropped passes. Hood was his usual, sparkling self, gaining 302 yards and becoming the first Mecklenburg County runner to eclipse the 3,000-yard barrier in a season (3,157). But his single touchdown was a mere luxury on this night.
Senior wingback Alex Sabates had his greatest output of the season, gaining more than 120 yards with a trip to the end zone. Quarterback Ryan Miller ran for a pair of touchdowns and threw another to Tyler Pumneo, who hauled in his fifth score of the season. Jake Priester dashed to two touchdown runs, and Drew Tomsho sped in for an eight-yard score.
Entering last week, the conventional thinking was that the Cougars were a one-man offensive arsenal: Hood. But the balanced offensive attack against Statesville just might give Northern Guilford’s fierce defense, which has posted five shutouts and allows a paltry 5.5 points per game, a lot more to think about on championship night.
“With Elijah, (teams) focus on him a lot, so that opens up things for everyone else,” said Sabates, who ranks second on the team with nearly 700 yards on the season.
“I know for me, it opened up things on the outside (against Statesville) a lot, and it helped the counter for Zach (Gabriel). Hopefully, it will make us more dangerous against Northern Guilford.”
Hood believes it will.
“That just makes it harder to stop us,” said Hood, who has a county single-season record 46 touchdowns this season. “We’ve got to let other teams know that there’s more to this team than just Elijah Hood. I think we proved that we can score by other means than just me. It’s the season of Thanksgiving, and we were just giving them points all day. It was awesome.”
Oddo, who’s seeking his fourth state title, said the team’s offensive success has been a community effort all season.
“Elijah is a special player, but a whole lot of people have helped us,” Oddo said. “(Sabates) makes our offense work. He does a great job as a blocker and runner.”
The venerable coach also tipped his cap to the Cougars’ underrated (but certainly not undersized)offensive line, which includes left tackle Matthew Kowalewski (6 foot 3, 235 pounds), left guard Chase Arnold (6-1, 235), center Joe Hurney (6-0, 280), right guard Ryan Barkley (6-4, 280) and right tackle Collin Porter (6-4, 280).
Collectively, the Cougars vanquished the painful memories of their previous two postseasons, when they carried undefeated records into the state semifinals only to fall to Crest. Each of those seasons – when Catholic sporting 13-0 and 14-0 records, respectively – the Cougars had what many believed was the best 3AA team in the state. They were determined not to have a sad bus ride back to Charlotte last Friday.
“Last year, the taste of the loss really stuck in our mouths, and we didn’t really want to feel that again,” Sabates said. “We were determined to win. We’re determined to win states, and it really came together for us (against Statesville).”
Hood echoed those sentiments.
“It’s a relief to finally get over that hump,” he said. “I was there when we lost two years ago and last year, so this was a really big moment for me. I worked so hard in the weight room thinking about this game, the Western Regional Final, in particular, because I know how tough the West can be. Just all our hard work as a team and all those practices are coming together. I’m so happy with my team.”
And so is his coach, the septuagenarian who’s led the Cougars to the state title game six times now. The 76-year-old Oddo was asked if he thought it would be special for Charlotte Catholic, which moves “up” to the Class 4A level next season, to win the crown in its last season as a 3AA program.
He shook his head.
“It’s great to win the state championship at any level,” he said. “I mean, 3A, 4A – that doesn’t make any difference. It would just be great for these kids to win. I mean, I’ve really enjoyed these guys.
“It’s just a very spirited group of young men. They’re nice kids that play hard, basically. They’re as fine a group as we’ve had. No smart alecks, a lot of nice guys who make an honest effort. They make me very proud to be working with them.”