Before celebrating with his team after its first win of the season over Union Pines, Northwood football head coach Mitch Johnson took a squat by the 30-yard line and bowed his head.
Just moments before, his first win as head coach of the program wasn’t certain.
Northwood opened the year with a 35-21 loss to 4A opponent, Riverside-Durham, and the following week, the Chargers were in a dog fight with the 3A Vikings.
And with only a one-point lead in the fourth quarter, the weight of that first victory wasn’t going anywhere.
The milestone could’ve waited another week after Northwood quarterback Carson Fortunes threw an interception halfway in the final period, but the Chargers responded with an interception of their own and closed the game out, 20-19.
Now that the ice-breaking win was out of the way, Johnson could focus on the next thing — building on it.
His team still has some work to do after being out-muscled in its most recent outing in which the Chargers lost, 38-12, to conference opponent North Moore. But, Johnson has clear expectations for himself and his players as they continue conference play and make a run for the playoffs.
Johnson sat down with the Chatham News and Record for a check-in during his first year at Northwood, talking about that first win, what’s next and his team’s identity as it continues to mesh.
I saw that you were emotional after the final buzzer went off against Union Pines. How did it feel to get your first win with the program?
You know, where I’ve been, the first win always means something. Everything that goes into a program — the community, the admin, athletic department, all the families, all the kids — it just means a lot because you put in a lot of hard work and you just want them to feel that satisfaction of a win. And then, we just went through a lot of adversity. We had a couple of our linemen struggling with their asthma. Gus (Ritchey) was out. Our starting running back was out. Our receivers and quarterbacks were going to have to go both ways. We had some cramping. (Union Pines) had twice the number of players. So, it was an exhausting night. As coaches, we really did everything we could to make sure that we could put the players in the best possible situation with everything that was going on. To watch them execute and come through with a big win and to see the excitement on them, it was a lot. Thinking about it now, I still get kind of choked up.
What was the reaction from your family and friends on that first win?
I had a lot of people reach out, and some people thought it was my first career win. But, this is my fourth head coaching job. This is probably one of my favorite wins I’ve had in my career. I just absolutely love Northwood since I’ve been here in February. It resembles a lot of where I grew up in down in Southern Pines at Pinecrest. We do things at a high standard, and we truly talk about excellence. I want to do what’s best for this community, for this school and for the athletes. To get that win, especially after we let that first one slip away, it meant a lot to execute when it mattered. A lot of people reached out, and it meant a lot. And, I’m hoping it’s the first of many.
Now that you’ve got that first win, what’s the focus for you and your staff going forward this season?
Conference now. We played a 4A and 3A, and now, we’re playing teams our size and schools our size. Now, our job is to execute at a high level because we feel we have the tools and resources to make a run for a conference championship.
What are some expectations that you have for yourself as a coach?
To make sure that we’re always ready. Each week it seems like we’re getting better with making sure that we do the little details, making sure we’re getting lined up right on special teams and making sure everybody knows they’re on special teams. For a lot of kids, it’s their first time playing and there’s a lot of new rules for them. We’re watching film and teaching (players) how to watch film. People don’t see how the product is made. They just see you on Friday nights. I want to make sure that we’re getting better at those things that people don’t see.
What do you expect from your players?
We ask them to watch film. That’s our big one. Also, giving us all they got at practice. We really feel like we make practice harder to make the game smoother and a little bit easier, so we push them. We go at a pretty fast pace to try and get them in shape. We want intense practices and intense film study, and we want to make sure they know their opponent.
What would you say is your team’s identity so far?
Offensively, we’re pretty explosive. But, we also showed in Union Pines that we can be physical. So, I think for us, we’re mixed. We’re explosive, but we like to control the tempo and run the ball. Defensively, we’re really physical. That’s one thing we take a lot of pride in. We’d love a little more turnovers, but we have been a physical team, and we do it the right way. So, I would say, we’re getting there. Defensively, we’re bend, but don’t break. Offensively, we can do anything that we need to. We can control the clock, but we also can have big plays. One thing we do have to get better at is doing our alignment and assignment technique and stop shooting ourselves in the foot and being our only Achilles heel.
Johnson’s first season with Northwood continues with a home game Friday at 7:30 against Southeast Alamance.