Harnett Central’s varsity football team outlasted All American 3-A/4-A Conference and Harnett County rival Triton on the road, winning a 10-3 defensive battle on the Hawks’ Senior Night on Friday.
“We keep growing as a team,” said Harnett Central coach Cory Barnes. “The kids are so bought in. The defense is so good. To hold a team like that, who has the best rushing attack in the conference, to just three points, that’s just a heck of a job. Offense, we’ve got to get rolling next week in the playoffs. We just made some mistakes when we shouldn’t have.”
Triton coach Ben Penny said the battle between Triton’s offensive line and Central’s defensive line made the difference in the game.
“That was tough,” Penny said. “We didn’t come out with the fire we needed up front. Harnett Central, they’re good on defense. They made some adjustments. Coach Tony Pyland (Central’s defensive coordinator) is one of the best in the business and we knew coming into the whole year that they were going to be improving defensively.
“They didn’t do anything we didn’t think they were going to do. They just outplayed us. They outplayed us in the trenches tonight. We just couldn’t get anything going.”
The win also secured a playoff bid for Harnett Central for the first time since 2011.
“I’m proud of our kids,” Barnes said. “It’s so big for our school and our community. To be where we were last year (Central won just two games last season) and then to be where we are a year later at this point, that’s a big deal for our program.”
Senior Aiden Taylor completed 16-of-24 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown, with no interceptions, and ran for 26 yards on seven carries. Junior Ethyn Muhammad ran for 102 yards on 17 carries and had two receptions for four yards for the Trojans (5-5, 5-2 AAC). Delshaun Brown had six receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown. Michael Smith had six receptions for 63 yards. Quan Dixon had two receptions for 29 yards. Landon Culbreth had a 13-yard carry. Axel Cuellar-Castro made a 27-yard field goal and his lone extra point try.
Barnes also praised the play of the Trojans’ defense.
“Coach Pyland does a great job,” Barnes said. “And our kids are tough. They’re relentless to the ball and they do their thing. I think we have the best defense in the conference and that’s a credit to coach Pyland.”
Senior Malachi Harris-Daye ran for 46 yards on four carries to lead the Hawks (6-4, 4-3).
“When Camauri (McDougald) went down (with an injury), Malachi stepped up,” Penny said. “He did a great job running east and west for us.”
Alan Hinson completed 1-of-12 passes for 49 yards, with one interception. Ahmad Morris had a 49-yard reception. A.J. Dewar ran for 35 yards on 12 carries. J.J. Cowan ran for 34 yards on 12 carries. McDougald ran for 13 yards on five carries. Christian Siliezar
made a 39-yard field goal.
On defense, Masiah Peterkin had three fumble recoveries. Penny praised the play of his defense, particularly the Hawks’ improved play in the defensive secondary.
“Everybody said tonight was going to be a high-scoring game and it was going to be back-and-forth all night,” Penny said. “Our guys answered the challenge on defense. When Camauri came down, we had some guys out and we got mixed up on our coverage and they were able to take advantage and that was their only touchdown. For that to be Aiden Taylor’s only touchdown tonight, I’m proud of those guys.
“I think Jordan Thompson made big plays tonight at corner. I think he was the guy they were going to go after, and Jordan stepped up tonight and played a heck of a game.”
Prior to the game, Triton honored 22 seniors: Harris-Daye, McDougald, Cowan, Dewar, Davion Carroll, Zackarious Singleton, Mathew Strickland, Tucker Brown, Nicko Addington, Demonte King, Zaylin Armstrong, Jamal Shaw, Ashton Whitehead, K.J. Lockamy, Conner Griffin, Darion Wilson, Avery Ellington, Logan Morgan, Caleb Smith, Mekhai Warren, Nick Overby and Siliezar.
“My heart hurts for those guys,” Penny said. “Especially Camauri. We’ll have to reevaluate him and see where he is with his injury. But that’s a special group.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Triton was the first team on the board. On a drive that started with Peterkin’s first fumble recovery of the night, Siliezar kicked a 39-yard field goal.
Central took the lead shortly before halftime when Taylor connected with a wide-open Brown for a 45-yard touchdown.
Central extended the lead midway through the third quarter when a Preston Gainey interception led to a 27-yard field goal from Cuellar-Castro.
Peterkin’s third fumble recovery of the night gave Triton an opportunity midway through the fourth quarter, but Central took it back with a fumble recovery by William Jones.
A fourth down stop at the one-yard-line gave Triton one last opportunity late in the fourth, but Central held Triton on fourth down and Taylor kneeled twice to run out the clock.
Triton will wait to see if it receives an at-large bid to the 3-A state playoffs when the brackets are released.
Harnett Central finished in a three-way tie for second in the conference with Overhills (5-5, 5-2) and Terry Sanford (5-5, 5-2).
Conference champion Pine Forest (6-4, 6-1) and Overhills are both 4-A schools and Harnett Central held the tiebreaker against Terry Sanford by beating the Bulldogs 45-28 at Terry Sanford on Oct. 6, making Central the top 3-A team in the conference, which comes with an automatic bid to the NCHSAA 3-A state playoffs.
“We’re going to treat it like another week of football,” Barnes said. “We’re going to get back to a couple of fundamentals on Monday, watch some film on whoever we play and go from there.”