In the postseason for the first time since 2011 and hosting a playoff game for the first time since 2009, 11th-seeded Harnett Central’s varsity football team took advantage of takeaways to beat No. 22 West Carteret, 42-30, in the first round of the NCHSAA 3-A playoffs on Friday night.
“They were ready to go,” said Harnett Central coach Cory Barnes. “We had a good week of practice and I told the guys today, ‘We haven’t really had a bad week or a bad day of practice in two months.’ So, our kids are ready. There’s some stuff we did offensively and defensively that we didn’t like, but to come into your first-round playoff game and get a win when we haven’t been to the playoffs in over a decade is a big deal.”
The win is the first for the Trojans in the postseason since 2009. That year, Central was the runner-up in the NCHSAA 4-A championship game.
Among the offensive leaders for the Trojans (6-5), senior Aiden Taylor completed 15-of-25 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns, junior Ethyn Muhammad ran for 230 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries and Quan Dixon had eight receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown.
“(Muhammad) has gotten better and better as the year’s gone on,” Barnes said. “And as he’s gotten better, because our line keeps jelling and getting better. I’m glad he’s ours.”
Michael Smith had three receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown. J.B. Sorrell ran for 28 yards and a touchdown on two carries. Landon Culbreth had a 27-yard touchdown reception. Delshaun Brown had two receptions for three yards. Axel Cuellar-Castro went 6-for-6 kicking extra points.
Junior Jaylen Hewitt completed 25-of-54 passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns, with three interceptions, and ran for 18 yards on two carries and junior Jasiah Jones had 12 receptions for 152 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Patriots (6-5).
Harnett Central forced five turnovers in the contest and the offense converted four of them into touchdowns. Eric Martin had two interceptions. Joseph Gardner had an interception. Sorrell and Quanterius Elliott each recovered a muffed kick return.
“It’s a three-phase game,” Barnes said. “The defense coming up with some big turnovers and us being able to capitalize on that, Aiden with his arm and Ethan with his legs.”
Central’s opening drive ended with West’s Lamar Teel blocking a field goal attempt and returning it for a touchdown. Willis Langley kicked the extra point.
The Trojans responded with Muhammad running for a 48-yard touchdown to tie it.
The Patriots reclaimed the lead, 10-7, on a 23-yard Langley field goal at the end of the first quarter.
A penalty on the ensuing kick return and a defensive stop forced Central to punt out of its own end zone, but the returner muffed it and it was recovered by Elliott. That led to Taylor completing a 19-yard touchdown pass to Dixon.
West retook the lead late in the quarter when Hewitt threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Jones, but the extra point was blocked.
Central scored on the ensuing drive on a five-yard Muhammad run and scored again when, after a muffed kick return recovered by Sorrell, Taylor connected with Smith for a 26-yard touchdown for a 28-16 lead at halftime.
Martin intercepted a pass on the opening drive of the second half, leading to Sorrell scoring on a 15-yard run to make it a three-score game.
Late in the third, Hewitt connected with Jones for a 19-yard touchdown to cut the lead to 35-23 at the end of the quarter.
Early in the fourth quarter, a Gardner interception led to Taylor completing a 27-yard touchdown to Culbreth.
The Patriots cut the lead back to two scores late in the quarter when Hewitt completed a 44-yard touchdown to Sean Cartwright.
West Carteret had two late red zone opportunities, but Central’s defense got it done, including a pair of big plays from Martin. On the first attempt, Martin came up with an interception at the three-yard-line.
On the second, West Carteret running back Keegan looked as if he had an open path to the end zone, but Martin chased him down from behind for a stop at the 5-yard-line. Two incompletions later, the Patriots turned it over on downs and Taylor kneeled twice to run out the clock.
“That’s a huge tackle right here in the red zone,” Barnes said. “Eric’s a senior. You’ve got to survive and advance and that was a big tackle down here. Our defense stepped up when they needed to.”
Harnett Central will host fellow All American 3-A/4-A Conference member No. 27 Terry Sanford (7-4), which upset No. 6 Vance County (10-1) 34-27, on the road in the second round of the playoffs on Friday. Central won 45-28 at Terry Sanford on Oct. 6.
“We’ve got to fix some things in all three phases,” Barnes said. “We had two blocked field goals tonight and that can’t happen, because that’s potential points off the board. But we’ll go into the film room on Monday and move on and get better going into next week.”