A “complete team win” was crucial for the Catawba Ridge Copperheads defeating local rival Nation Ford 31-7 Friday night at The Pit, clinching a city championship in front of a raucous home crowd.
Quarterback Nate Thomas threw three touchdown passes and running back Tyler Jones amassed 151 rushing yards, while Copperheads head coach Zac Lendyak’s defense stood tall, allowing Nation Ford quarterback Carson Black just three completions on 20 passing attempts.
The win, combined with Catawba Ridge’s season-opening rout of Fort Mill, meant Catawba Ridge, now 3-0, swept both of its local non-region rivals this year, earning the school plenty of bragging rights through the rest of the season.
“I really think we won it in the trenches, on both sides,” Lendyak said. “Being able to run the ball so well, it allowed (Thomas) to pick and choose when we threw it. It’s a complete team win tonight.”
The Catawba Ridge defense forced a fumble on Nation Ford’s second offensive play of the night, giving the Copperheads the ball at the opposing 23-yard line.
Thomas couldn’t find wide receiver Brandon Raysor in the end zone, but kicker Kohen Kozel nailed a 26-yard field goal a couple plays later to give Catawba Ridge an early 3-0 lead.
Catawba Ridge quickly regained possession a few minutes later. Thomas found Jordan Gilliam on the far sideline for what would have been a seven-yard touchdown, but the score was negated by a Catawba Ridge holding penalty.
Kozel skewed the ensuing 32-yard field goal wide right.
Early in the second quarter, Catawba Ridge took over on the Nation Ford 27. Thanks to Thomas’ quick passes to Myles Baucom and Brady Ambrose, as well as some strong running by Ira Mister, the Copperheads drove 73 yards in 12 plays, culminating in a 29-yard pass from Thomas that found Raysor in the far side of the end zone.
After a Nation Ford three-and-out, Sheldon Crawford returned the Falcons’ punt about 55 yards the other way, but that score was again negated by a penalty flag.
Jones broke out for a big 23-yard rush to start the Copperheads’ last drive of the half. Five plays later, Baucom caught a 10-yard pass from Thomas to help the home team go up 17-0 entering the halftime break.
Black finished the first half with 0-of-9 passing. Nation Ford, fell to 0-3 on the season, accrued just 27 offensive yards in the first two quarters, including 20 yards on the final drive of the half.
Falcons’ head coach Michael Allen said his team will need to dig deep to “claw our way out” of a winless start to the season.
Dropped passes have been a particular frustration. Allen said he knew his receiver corps was “as green as it’s ever been at the history of Nation Ford,” but that he believes the problem is fixable.
“It’s gonna take more focus,” he said. “More trust in each other. When you start out winless, you’ve got to look at yourself, not only the players, but also the coaching staff. But you don’t quit. You keep fighting.”
Nation Ford finally hit paydirt in the third quarter when Black connected with tight end Ben Wakefield on a 16-yard pass. Combined with a 15-yard Catawba Ridge penalty, the Falcons reached the red zone, where Black spotted Daheem Knowles in the endzone from 16 yards out to cut the lead to 17-7.
But that momentum was short-lived. Catawba Ridge took over with two minutes left in the third quarter and running back Evan Hamilton ripped a 51-yard rushing touchdown, when he broke through the middle of the Nation Ford defense and left a trail of defenders in his wake to give the Copperheads a 24-7 advantage.
The home team scored again in the fourth quarter when Thomas found Brady Ambrose with a three-yard touchdown, just a few plays after the Nation Ford punter bobbled a snap and was forced to fall on the ball on the Falcons’ nine.
“I teach the boys to play their positions,” Lendyak said. “If all 11 of us are where we’re supposed to be, just do your job. … The defense is cranked up. I’ll take this result any day of the week, they’re making it really great.”
Thomas amassed 139 passing yards and started Friday’s game in relief of named starter Tyler Fikis, who is recovering from an ankle sprain sustained in last week’s win over Myers Park. Lendyak said the team will monitor Fikis’ week-to-week with an eye for potentially returning in the next week or two.
Catawba Ridge next hosts West Cabarrus out of Concord, N.C., while Nation Ford hosts Northwestern. Both games will be played 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9.