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Knights have their backs to the wall

Posted: October 27, 2016 11:49 a.m.
Updated: October 28, 2016 1:00 a.m.

DAMIEN HAYES ... NC lineman

Two gets you through. One won’t get it done.

That is the prospect staring the North Central football team in the face as the Knights prepare to hit the road for tonight’s next-to-last conference game of the season against Central High School in Pageland.

Through the first four games of the Region 4-AA campaign, the Knights are winless and have been outscored by a 165-31 margin in those contests. In a conference in which five of the seven teams make the state playoffs, Louis Clyburn knows his troops cannot afford a slip-up tonight as they seek to make their Nov. 11 home game with Buford a meaningful encounter.

Already, Cheraw, Andrew Jackson and Lee Central have locked up postseason berths with a two-win Central squad looking to punch its ticket to the post-season with a win tonight. That leaves Chesterfield, whose lone league victory came in a 45-0 victory over NC last week, North Central and Buford --- the latter two still in search of a 4-AA triumph --- battling for the final playoff berth. Should Chesterfield and NC be tied with one win, the Rams would get the fifth and final spot in the tourney and would head to meet Andrews on Nov. 18.

When asked if his players know their predicament, Clyburn said there are too many forms of information to try and hide the facts from his team.

“With social media, MaxPreps (a high school Website) and all those things out there,” he said, “it’s no secret. We have the opportunity to make the playoffs but we have to win these next two games in order to actually have a chance to finish either fourth or, fifth.

“We kind of control our own destiny, which is lot different than some other schools. That’s a good thing for motivation, especially for our seniors who don’t want this thing to end. They want to keep playing. They want recess to go on for another 10 minutes.”

As strange as it may sound with a program like perennial state AA power Central on the back end of it, the final trio of conference games for the Knights seem to be the most winnable contests. The Knights opened league play with a loss to a surprising Andrew Jackson unit before taking their lumps against resurgent Lee Central and then, once-beaten Cheraw.

“It’s been an interesting season if you look at the whole picture with our region,” Clyburn said. “Any team other than Cheraw, right now, has been able to beat any other team. There is a lot of parity amongst the troops and the coaches (in the league) have talked about that amongst ourselves.”

NC’s closing three games opened on an ominous note last week in Chesterfield against a Rams’ squad which was getting healthy at the worst possible time, as far as NC was concerned. By the same token, the Knights have been hit hard by the injury bug which limited the effectiveness of quarterbacks Tyler Faulkenberry and Zack Jones, who both have other responsibilities on defense, and sustained injuries a week ago. That pair was pressed into action when starting junior quarterback Bubba Williamson went down with an injury to his right shoulder in the preseason. Williamson has yet to appear in a game and may not play tonight.

The lack of continuity at quarterback, combined with the hand injury sustained by tailback Cedrick Cunningham, led to NC having nine fumbles and losing five of those last week as the Rams raced to a 24-0 halftime lead.

“We need to play solid, clean football and eliminate those turnovers this week,” Clyburn said. “We’re going to have to be able to run the football but Tyler and our other quarterbacks have also done a good job of throwing the football in practice this week.”

Clyburn said that ball security was addressed in practice this week and noted that the center-quarterback and quarter-to-running back exchanges went off without a hitch on the practice field. The task now, he said, is for that to translate to the game itself.

“We had a great week of practice this week,” Clyburn said. It was also a week in which the Knights were able to promote several of their top junior varsity performers to help with depth. Most of those players were put on the defensive side of the football.

Tonight, several young Knights will get their varsity baptism under fire in a setting which is one of the toughest in all of South Carolina football. What Clyburn has stressed to his youngsters is that the game is the same regardless of what level it is played. He did acknowledge that Central is a tough place to play for players of any class.

“What we have done to get them ready for the speed of the game is that you try and somehow mimic that speed in practice,” he said. “We have cranked it up a couple times in practice, in short segments, to let these guys feel the full speed nature of the game. Varsity football is a faster game than jayvee football. They’ve actually done really well with that.

“It’s been a fun week of practice. I’m kind of excited to see them play on Friday night.”

The Knights will face a Central team which has not lost to North Central in 32 seasons. Over the years, the Eagles have been one of the more dominant AA programs in the state. Their home stadium also gives them one of the best home field advantages anywhere.

“We want to go in there and take it to them at their own home,” Clyburn said of the challenge which his team faces. “A place like Central ,which has tradition-rich football, is like going into Zemp Stadium and playing Camden High School. That should be a tough place to play and at Central High School, it’s is kind of that same way.

This season, under head coach Craig Hatcher, Central is in a rebuilding mode with some of its best players being sophomores. The teams does feature senior tailback Devonte Robinson and classmate and wide receiver Jay’Qua Clyburn as two of their top skill position performers in an offense directed by junior quarterback Kevon Wall. Still, the Eagles want to run the ball and had one series in last week’s win over Buford in which they controlled the ball for 20 plays.

“They run the football, just like most past Central teams and they have a lot of athletes on defense,” Clyburn said of the Eagles.  “At the same time, they have some spots that we think that we can take advantage of.

“We certainly have our work cut out for us but like I tell our guys, it wouldn’t be fun if it wasn’t hard. If it was easy, it wouldn’t be fun. We’re going to embrace the challenge; we’re going to embrace the opportunity and we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”


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