Two fourth-quarter scores powered Harnett Central’s varsity football team to a 28-14 Senior Night win over visiting Tri-County Six 3-A Conference and Harnett County rival Triton to end the regular season on Friday night.
“They were incredibly athletic on defense,” said Triton coach Ben Penny. “Coach Migliore has done a fantastic job with this bunch. He has done an outstanding job. He’s got the guys believing again. They’re playing fast. They’re playing physical. Something we haven’t seen from Harnett Central in a long time. We thought we had a good game plan and were prepared. We just didn’t execute. We were doing things we hadn’t been doing in practice and we didn’t play like we had been practicing.”
The win is Central’s first over Triton since 2014 and gives the Trojans (6-5, 2-3 TCSC) their first winning record at the end of the regular season since 2010.
“I know 2010 is the last time this school has had a winning record, so to do that in and of itself is huge,” said Harnett Central coach Matt Migliore. “To put it in context of a high school kid, these kids were in first, second, third grade when that happened. To them, that’s a lifetime ago. To finally get over that hump and beat them and put us over the edge of being .500, with more wins than losses, it’s gigantic.”
Central’s defense took away Triton’s biggest offensive weapon: the run game. The Trojans held the Hawks (3-8, 1-4) to just 78 total rushing yards.
“I thought we controlled the line of scrimmage,” Migliore said. “A lot of times offensive and defensive line don’t get enough credit and defensively, we controlled the line of scrimmage.”
Senior Everett Blake was a major playmaker for the Trojans. He was the game’s leading rusher, with 77 yards on six carries, had three receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown and recovered a fumble on defense.
“He’s just so intelligent and he’s just the ultimate leader and he’s just a darn football player,” Migliore said. “When you need a big play, you go to Everett and you know he’s going to make things happen for you.”
Jaden Bryant was 12-of-22 passing for 199 yards and two touchdowns, with two interceptions, and ran for two touchdowns. Jackson Jones had six receptions for 80 yards and a touchdown and ran for 10 yards on one carry. Kha’lil Cameron had a 24-yard reception. Marquez Jones ran for 19 yards on four carries and had a one-yard reception.
Both coaches cited sophomore defensive lineman Khalil McLean as a major factor up front on defense.
“It’s hard to imagine to some people that he’s only a sophomore,” Migliore said. “He’s got a lot of growing up to do and a lot of maturing to do, but I’m certainly excited that we’ve got him for two more years. He’s pretty special.”
“That McLean kid’s unreal,” Penny said. “We just couldn’t block him.”
Junior J.P. Petoletti completed 5-of-13 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions, and senior Travion Sanders had three receptions for 62 yards and a touchdown and ran for 39 yards on 11 carries to lead Triton.
Ro’mello Cowan ran for 58 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries. Malachi Batts had a 17-yard reception. Malik McNeill ran for six yards on two carries. Kyle Dunkins had a three-yard reception.
Prior to the game, Harnett Central honored six seniors: Anthony Tomlinson, Mike Watson, Jackson Jones, Everett Blake, Cameron Hicks and Adam Scott.
“It’s been huge,” Migliore said. “There’s six of them. We’re not going to discount Cameron Hicks, who tore his ACL in the first game. He would have been huge for us this year. But to only play with five seniors all year and kind of lack that leadership and that veteran experience. Of those guys, four of them have been here since day one. Anthony, last year was his first year. They never didn’t believe what we were telling them. They always believed that we were building a program and that they were the ones that were going to make the turn and right this ship and get things going in the right direction. And they finished and proved themselves right.”
Triton was the first team on the board, scoring on a 12-yard Cowan run early in the first quarter. The extra point attempt was no good.
Central answered late in the first with Bryant running for a one-yard touchdown. Liam Peebles kicked the extra point to give the Trojans a 7-6 lead.
The Trojans had three different red zone opportunities in the second quarter, but Triton’s defense held, with Sanders and Cowan each making an interception and Jalonte McNeill blocking a field goal attempt. The score remained 7-6 at halftime.
Central found pay dirt again midway through the third quarter when Bryant found Jackson Jones in the end zone from 20 yards out. Peebles again added the extra point.
Triton answered on the ensuing drive with Petoletti completing a 20-yard touchdown to Sanders. Cowan ran for the two-point conversion to tie the game 14-14.
A trick play paid off for the Trojans midway through the fourth quarter. Bryant completed a short pass to Jackson Jones, who pitched the ball to Blake, who raced to the end zone for a 55-yard score. Jalonte McNeill blocked his second kick of the night on the extra point attempt.
“Heck of a play. Heck of a call,” Penny said. “We hadn’t seen that on film at all. We just came inside a block and the safety took a bad angle to it. We knew something was coming. We knew they were trying to set something up in that situation. Great call and great execution by them.”
Late in the fourth, an errant snap on a punt gave Central a short field. The Trojans took advantage, scoring on a one-yard Bryant run. Perry ran for the two-point conversion.
Triton was able to get the ball to midfield on the ensuing drive, but Jackson Jones and Hanson Staps ended the possession with a sack on fourth down, allowing the Trojans to run out the clock.
“When we (the coaching staff) started here three years ago and for years before that, the M.O. was kind of as soon as something bad happens and the score is in the wrong direction, hang our heads and quit,” Migliore said. “This year, we finally got over that hump and understood that just because we were down on the scoreboard doesn’t mean the game was over. We talked about finishing and I thought they did a great job. When they tied that ball game up, we could have went down really quickly and we responded really well and we finished.”
The loss brings Triton’s season to a close and brings an end to the high school football careers of 18 seniors.
“First of all, I think about our three captains: Jalonte (McNeill), Grayson (Bradham) and Tra (Sanders),” Penny said. “Those guys have been a part of us for a long time. Grayson and Jalonte, we moved them up freshman year and we were 8-4 that year and hosted a home playoff game. They’ve been a part of this program and a part of the varsity football team and they’ve been on the roller coaster ride. They’ve done a lot of good things for me and I really appreciate them. Mello stepped up and had a lot of confidence and one of the best years in school history at running back. There’s a few of those guys we’re really going to miss. They’ve done a lot of good things. It’s a very intelligent class and I’m really looking forward to following them throughout life. I think they’re going to do some big things.”
Harnett Central is a bubble team for the state playoffs and will await the release of the brackets on Saturday to find out if its season will continue.
“We’re hopeful,” Migliore said. “You look at the projections, and they’re not always 100 percent correct. I know last week we were right on the bubble. I think these kids deserve another shot.”