Harnett Central had a 22-14 lead in the fourth quarter against visiting Terry Sanford on Friday night before the Bulldogs rallied for a 43-22 win and a third-round berth in the NCHSAA 3-A football playoffs.
The Trojans finished 6-6 for their first non-losing season since going 6-5 in 2019 but missing the playoffs.
“Our defense and our special teams had a great game,” said second-year Central coach Cory Barnes, who oversaw a significant improvement from a 2-8 record in 2022. “We had a blocked punt for a touchdown. We had a pick six and forced two more turnovers.”
The Bulldogs (8-4) were on a payback mission after a 45-28 loss at home to Central on October 6. Terry Sanford, the No. 27 seed in the East bracket, notched their second road win in the playoffs and will travel to third-seeded Southern Alamance (11-1) on Friday night.
The Trojans were the top 3-A seed from the All American Conference and were in the bracket at No. 11. Central was in the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
Eric Martin blocked a Terry Sanford punt and Noah Rhodes returned it for a touchdown to tie the score at 7 in the second quarter.
An interception by Rhodes led to an 8-yard scoring run by senior quarterback Aiden Taylor as Central closed within 14-13 in the third quarter. Shortly thereafter, a pick six by Martin put the Trojans ahead, 19-14.
Central capitalized on a fumble recovery by Quan Dixon with a field goal by Axel Cuellar-Castro to lead, 22-14.
Two scoring passes by Jaylen Wright sparked the visitors’ comeback.
“Ultimately Terry Sanford did a good job stopping our run game and taking us out of what we wanted to do offensively,” Barnes said. “That was really the story of the night for us, which is why it ended up the way it did. We couldn’t get the ball running early with Ethyn (Muhammad), and we just made some mistakes down the stretch that ended up to where it got to by the end of the game.”
The Trojans overcame an 0-3 start to the season.
“First year, you’re trying to fill out a program, and then Aiden got hurt the first game of the season last year,” Barnes said. “We didn’t have a full staff compared to what we had this year for a coaching staff. Trying to navigate that, navigate culture, inserting culture and personalities, and then finishing 2-8, which is not where we wanted it to be.
“To go through a whole year in the offseason of working hard and the kids working hard and buying in. Then we start off 0-3. Then they hit a run in conference to where we become the No. 1 seed in the 3-A to get two home playoff games and to win one.
“That’s a huge deal for our program and where we want it to go and where we want it to be. Those kids know that. They were supremely confident in what they were doing, bought in, emotional about last night, weren’t ready for it to be over even though it is.
“From a program standpoint, from year one to year two, this group has set the standard for where we want to be and stay at.”
Eight returning starters on offense and an 8-1 junior varsity indicate the Trojans will continue an upward trend.
Koby Howard was the JV quarterback. Central also has run threat Landon Culbreth, who contributed this season as a receiver but has experience directing the offense.
“He can spin it,” Barnes said of Howard. “We’re looking forward to the maturation and progression of Koby, along with being able to have Landon there as a safety blanket for run game purposes. I think it’ll be a good situation to have going forward after losing Aiden, who unfortunately didn’t get to play two years in the system because of an injury, but did a great job being a leader on offense and getting us to where we wanted to be.”
Muhammad will return after rushing for over 1,000 yards as a junior.
There is an experienced group of receivers, who will be back.
“D.J. Brown had the most yards this year, but Mike Smith came on strong at the end,” Barnes said “Michael Smith. Really, our whole receiving corps really contributed together as a unit. We threw for over 2,000 yards this year, and they all had about 500 or 600.
“The ball was distributed pretty evenly. But D.J. at the beginning of the year was big time. He comes back. He’ll be a junior. Michael Smith comes back. He’ll be a senior. And Landon Culbreth will be in the slot. … He’ll be a senior.”
The Trojans will look to continue a physical transformation.
“This offseason, we’ve got to keep getting stronger in the weight room,” Barnes said. “That’s No. 1 to compete. I think from the season we just had, our kids are bought into what we’re doing. They see that it works. Another good offseason in the weight room and just being able to get individual time with these kids.
“For instance, like your young quarterback, Koby, getting him in the film room and footwork and offseason workouts, being able to work with him one-on-one to get more time to progress in what we want him to do.
“But the biggest thing is weight room to keep building on strength and building that comradery. Then once we get to the spring and summer, being able to go out there and compete in seven on sevens. Being in the third year in our system I think is a huge deal too. Everybody’s getting comfortable with what we do, our lingo, how we speak, and I think it’ll keep improving and get better going forward.”