RIDGELY — The Bulldogs’ simplified approaches have carried into the playoffs.
North Caroline High’s football team rode the strength of its defense and an efficient offense during Friday evening’s Class 2A East Region playoff opener, continuing to set benchmarks in the midst of another undefeated season.
No. 2 seed in the East, the Bulldogs held the seventh-seeded Buccaneers to 131 yards total offense, while senior quarterback Wyatt LaClair and classmate Montreyse Deshields moved the sticks on the other end en route to a 35-14 runaway.
The blowout was eschewed by two late Kent Island touchdowns, but the running clock was in play for much of the second half. For Caroline, it also avenged a first-round playoff loss suffered to Kent Island in 2017, which, at the time, ended what was a 10-0 regular season. Deshields was just a sophomore then, but he remembers feeling like he let down all-time names such as David Bailey, Ja’Mion Franklin, and of course, their longtime head coach James McCormick.
“It stuck with us, these last two years,” Deshields said. “It stuck with us. Seeing the disappointment on the seniors’ faces, the juniors’ faces, I just didn’t want that to happen to my guys. We put everything on the line for them.
“We tried to get the younger players to know the situation better, because they have never been here before,” Deshields added. “We talked them up, coached them up a little bit, and had to get ready for the playoffs.”
The Bulldogs (10-0) will host third-seeded Harford Tech (9-1), 7 p.m. Friday in Ridgely.
“They understand, this is the playoffs, there are no second chances,” McCormick said of the attitude of the seniors. “You’ve got to be on your ‘A’ game, but the other side of it is you can’t be paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake; you’ve got to show up and play ball.
“The defense did a great job,” McCormick said. “One of the things that we talked about was field position, making them earn everything. These guys understand. The loss two years ago, the lesson was good for them. They know what’s at stake, and the seniors have been preparing, working, and doing everything we ask them to do, hopefully they can keep it going.”
The overarching storyline on the Kent Island side of things was the health of sophomore quarterback Matthew Burnside. The signal caller suffered a shoulder injury last week against Queen Anne’s County, but went through a full practice Thursday and the walkthrough Friday after being limited in the earlier days.
Burnside was ineffective, going 2 of 7 passing with an interception on his first toss, a slant that North Caroline sophomore safety Owen Doyle jumped the route on. He nearly returned it for a score before losing track of the out-of-bounds line on the well-worn field and stumbling out of bounds near Kent Island’s bench at the Buccaneer 30.
Burnside lacked zip on his throws, and senior backup Toby Skeans completed only one pass and was stuffed for a loss of 15 yards on 11 rushing attempts, including four sacks. Kent Island ended the season 6-4.
“He practiced one day this week,” Ferragamo said of Burnside. “And he was throwing the ball okay, but couldn’t do what he would normally do. So, we had a backup plan for him, but it obviously limits us quite a bit in what we can do.
“We didn’t move the sticks, we got caught in some bad field positions with good special teams plays by them, and some not so great ones by us,” Ferragamo said. “They created that, too, and that’s how you win games, you win the field position.”
Caroline’s offense was methodical, and also didn’t have to do much, with the average possession starting just short of midfield. Deshields did most of the damage for the Bulldogs, totaling 112 yards from scrimmage and three total touchdowns. He hauled in a 19-yard TD fade along the right corner of the end zone to cap a five-plus minute opening drive for Caroline, and also beat the defense on a 42-yard pass from LaClair to cap a 28-0 first half. The Bulldogs finished with 228 yards total offense on 37 plays, over 6 yards per snap.
“We were hoping to get a good drive there,” McCormick said of the opening possession that resulted in Deshields’ TD grab. “Wyatt through a couple of nice balls in that first drive, we were working on a couple of things, and kids were executing.
“We set the tempo there with the first drive, and kept it rolling from there,” McCormick added.
In between, Kent Island received a 5-yard touchdown carry from bruising senior running back Trenton Hillard, while senior Jason Brown eluded three defenders for a 42-yard punt return for a score to make it 21-0. Junior kicker Kyler Boyd was a perfect 5-for-5 on point after touchdowns for Caroline.
“We wanted to use our speed to our advantage, our team athleticism,” Deshields said. “We went in with the mentality (after halftime) to finish, to finish, play hard like we’re going in zero, zero, not 28-0. We came out in the second half, played hard, got the dub.”
Added senior Kent Island linebacker Floyd Butler: “It sucks. One thing everyone regrets — and we’ll have a regret every year — but one thing I wish was we came out a little bit harder at the very beginning. We didn’t come out hard enough, and that just set the tone. I think the jitters and being away from our home field, all that, all excuses, we just came out flat.”
With Burnside scuffling, Ferragamo went with Skeans the entire second half. One week after running wild for 100 yards on the ground against Queen Anne’s, Skeans was bottled up throughout. Caroline’s feat was particularly impressive considering senior defensive end Carlton Johnson — one half of a pair with classmate Kendron Wayman — was lost for the season with leg and foot injuries suffered during the regular season game against Kent Island two weeks ago, a 28-21 Bulldog win. Sophomore McCabe Piavis was a more than capable fill-in, swarming the ball with gusto and getting in on a handful of the hits levied upon Skeans, of which there were plenty since the Bucs run a mostly direct-snap pistol offense when Skeans is under center.
“Here at The Ridge, it’s always the next man up, the brotherhood, you know?” said Piavis, who was playing in his second varsity game after debuting against Colonel Richardson in Week 9. “When one man goes down, there is always going to be a guy who can step up, and it happens to be me.
“On Monday, we watched a lot of film, coaches give us lots of film, and we watch tendencies and all that,” Piavis added. “Coaches on the sidelines giving us the calls, and we just got to play. Once we realized, ‘Man, this guy’s (Skeans) got wheels,’ we adjusted, and we shut them down after the first quarter.”
Deshields scored on a 23-yard dash with 4 minutes left to play in the third, starting the running clock. It was later halted when Skeans snuck in from two yards out on a keeper with 4 minutes, 55 seconds left to play. The final touchdown of Kent Island’s season and the game was a 44-yard, sack, strip, fumble, recovery, and TD by senior Isaiah Shockley, who ripped the ball out of the hands of Caroline backup QB Heath Wilkins Jr. and scored. Senior Joseph Garvey hit both PATs to cap his career.
The Buccaneers made strides after going 5-5 in 2018 and missing the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons, and Butler cited better chemistry as the key to success and a step forward.
“It feels great to be back in the playoffs, like Kent Island should be,” Butler said. “Our brotherhood brought us back up, and this is what the outcome is.”