PITTSBORO — When the Chargers open their football season against the Lee County Yellow Jackets on Friday, it will have been 119 days since their second-round defeat, 32-7, to the 3A runner-up Havelock Rams on April 23.
An offseason that lasts just under four months is unheard of for any high school sport, much less the most physically taxing of them all, one that is typically never played twice in the same calendar year.
While Northwood Head Coach Cullen Homolka said the team is feeling the quick turnaround, with a couple of players having sustained minor injuries during workouts this offseason, the real storyline isn’t physical recovery, it’s roster recovery.
Last season, in Homolka’s second year with the team, Northwood found both its rhythm and its identity en route to a 6-3 overall record, a Big Eight conference co-championship and a shutout first-round playoff win, 17-0, over West Carteret for the team’s first home postseason victory in over a decade.
“We tried to bring more of a mental toughness to practice than we did the year before and we changed our philosophy on offense to a more conservative, grind-it-out type of offense,” Homolka told the News + Record over the weekend. “Our team really started bonding and understanding the importance of a team in football success. I think that transition from what we were to that was huge.”
However, the key to the Chargers’ 2020-21 success wasn’t necessarily their newfound offensive mindset or even simple dumb luck. Instead, it was their tough-as-nails defense that was known for punishing opposing offensive players anytime they attempted to cross the line of scrimmage — and, sometimes, before they could even reach it.
Northwood boasted the second-stingiest defense in the Big Eight conference last season (allowing 15.0 points-per-game), just behind the Orange Panthers (12.3 ppg), and held five of its eight opponents to under 13 points. They won all five of those games.
What made that defense tick was its talent from front to back, ranging from the strong group of linebackers — including Aidan Laros and Jake Mann — to a formidable secondary with players like defensive backs Kentrell Edwards and Cam Entrekin to a massive presence up front from the sheer size of guys like defensive tackle Michael Anthony.
And then, graduation happened.
The Chargers will be heading into this season without Laros, Mann, Edwards, Entrekin, Anthony and plenty of other defensive (and offensive) players that were members of one of Northwood’s most formidable senior classes in recent memory.
Homolka has giant holes to fill.
But by the tone of his voice, it’s clear that he isn’t concerned.
“We lost about 8-9 starters on defense, but our offense actually went from a young, inexperienced offense to an extremely experienced one,” Homolka said. “Defensively, we’re going to make it to where they can be successful and we’re not going to overcomplicate things.”
Last season, all the Chargers’ offense needed to do was put together just a couple of scoring drives — long or short — to win games. Their defense would take care of the rest and put opponents to bed.
Homolka said his goal for this season, however, is to flip that strategy.
He said he hopes his experienced offense will be able to take the reins, go on longer, 7-8 minute scoring drives to put up points and kick it back to a refreshed defense, which will do its best to keep them in the game.
While there aren’t any plans for a Homolka-led team to boast a high-flying, pass-first offense, he said he’s excited for the amount of athleticism on this year’s squad that could go a long way in improving upon the Chargers’ middle-of-the-road 20.8 points-per-game, which ranked third in the Big Eight last season.
“Offensively, we’re senior-heavy,” Homolka said. “But with our quarterback situation, we’ve got really two athletic kids that played on our J.V. team the year before and we’re expecting them to come out and help us this year, as well. I’m excited about them.”
Homolka is referring to Entrekin’s replacements at quarterback, sophomore Carson Fortunes and junior Will Smith, both similar 6-foot-tall players that he said are also “really good leaders that’ll both play on defense, too, because that’s just how good of athletes they are.”
The plan is for them to act as a two-headed monster, each getting into the game at quarterback, depending on the situation, instead of one being used as the backup to the other. Fortunes will also play outside linebacker, while Smith will double as a safety.
Pair the young athleticism of the Chargers’ dual quarterbacks with a duo of experienced running backs in Jalen Paige and Ryan Hilliard running behind an offensive line that Homolka said has “a workers mentality that makes them do whatever they’ve got to do to be successful,” and you have the recipe for a fun, gritty offense with lots of promise.
And despite the mountain of question marks on defense following the departure of around 70% of its starters from last season, the Chargers have plenty of reason for optimism.
Homolka singled out a couple of players to watch on defense, including Pierce Cook, a 6-foot-5 senior linebacker that is capable of filling in for Mann.
“He can sink his hips and he can change direction better than any of them,” Homolka said. “He’ll be a Jake Mann-type kid that we’ll replace him with. The middle linebacker spots will be young, but we’re hoping he can fill in where Hue Jacobs was doing a really good job for us and be able to do the same thing.”
Another name to look out for is senior Stephen Lane, who Homolka said will likely lead the defense at linebacker after playing a few games at the position last season due to injuries.
There may be plenty of individuals that are slated to impress this season, but Homolka is — and always will be — focused on the defense as a whole.
“I’m just kind of excited to see how they’ll all work together because, across the board, they’re all in the same position as to what they can bring to the table and what they can do to help us,” Homolka said. “My philosophy is to always put our best players on defense. So they’re going to be athletic, they’re going to be able to cover kids, they’re going to be able to come down and make good tackles. … It’s not about individual effort, it’s about doing your job well enough to help the team.”
Northwood hopes to extend last season’s good fortune into the new Central 3A conference, which has the Chargers facing off against two familiar foes — Orange and Cedar Ridge — and four others, including Eastern and Western Alamance, Person and Williams.
Of the seven teams in the Central, three of them — Northwood, Eastern Alamance, Western Alamance — made the postseason in 2020-21.
“It’s more football friendly because of Western and Eastern Alamance, which are playoff teams every year,” Homolka said. “So we’ve got our hands full, especially with Orange, too. … Orange is never easy and fun for us because it’s two similar teams with similar philosophies. I’m excited to play Alamance schools, too, because I know the kind of talent they are, that physicality. So that’ll be fun.”
This Friday, the Chargers have a tough season-opener at home against a Lee County team that has lost just four games over the last four seasons, all in the playoffs.
The last matchup between the Chargers and Cavaliers ended in a Lee County blowout win, 60-0, in 2019, but Homolka seems primed for a rematch.
“It’s going to be a challenge for us in a lot of ways, there’s going to be a lot of speed on their side and they’re a very confident team that believes they can win every game they play because they’re an established program,” Homolka said. “In the past, we’ve kind of just expected them to come out and take care of the job, get it done and move on. Now, I think we can at least compete in that game and get out of it 1-0 on our end. And our kids believe that.”
Reporter Victor Hensley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Frezeal33.
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