Coming off a 4-6 season and missing the playoffs in 2022, many things were uncertain for the Northwood football program.
Players, some of whom felt “uncomfortable” with certain situations in the prior year, didn’t know if they wanted to transfer or not. Some of them weren’t sure if they wanted to play football anymore.
Then, the program underwent a transition when Northwood hired Mitch Johnson to take over as head coach after Chris Kenan’s resignation.
Now a make or break offseason for the program, Northwood’s players and coaches had to buy into each other to steer the ship into the right direction. The Chargers ultimately established a new culture of togetherness and confidence in one another, leading to its 7-4 overall record and a playoff appearance in 2023.
But, before Johnson took the reigns as the program’s new leader, the turn around started with the players’ mindset.
Following last year’s season-ending 61-12 defeat to Western Alamance, the Chargers felt “let down,” especially with the circumstances around the loss.
“I felt like we were a little down on ourselves,” junior Gus Ritchey said. “We knew that it was a big margin of seniors that were leaving. Some good players, too.”
With some of the younger guys now needing to step up for the next season, the Chargers applied that pressure to the weight room and whatever they needed to do to better themselves.
For the rising seniors, 2023 couldn’t be a year to waste, especially for Carson Fortunes and Ashton Elliott who were both injured for a significant part of their junior years.
“I just realized I had to bring it for next year,” Elliott said. “I really started taking the game seriously going into my senior year, doing everything I can do.”
Players found within themselves the foundation for a bounce back season, but it all came together and was put into action when Johnson’s head coach title became official.
“I was weighing options on where to play and all that stuff with the coaching changes,” Fortunes said. “I saw Coach Johnson was the new coach, and he stopped me and Gus in the hallway and immediately got down to what he wanted to do, why we need to be here…Just (from) meeting him for the first time, I knew we could build something here, and we could stay.”
Johnson said one of the first things he did as head coach was building his coaching staff with “football guys” and coaches that have been around the program in the past. One of those guys was B.J. Harrington who played for Northwood during its better days under head coach Bill Hall — a period in the program’s history that Johnson wanted resemble.
Harrington’s father, Brian, was a defensive coordinator under Hall for 14 years until becoming the Chargers’ head coach from 2015 to 2019 — making Harrington a Northwood guy through and through.
Outside of providing his troops familiar faces and people committed to the program, Johnson’s next step was building trust and genuine relationships with the players.
His first offseason didn’t start with football focused workouts and spring ball — it started with showing up to basketball games in which many of his key pieces played in the winter.
“I wanted to make sure that people knew (the coaches) weren’t just here for football,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make sure these guys knew that we supported them even though they weren’t doing football workouts and all that…We (knew) that in spring ball and summer, we’d have them all to ourselves, but right now, let’s make sure they understand that we’re here, and we’re here for good.”
Strengthening his relationships with his players early on worked out for Johnson further into the offseason as the players not only wanted to stay — they wanted to work.
They knew how to work hard from having success in other sports at the school, but with a culture change for football, how would they respond? There was no better indication of that than when the weather interfered with Northwood’s practices.
“We had one or two times where it rained or we had a tornado warning, (and) these guys listened to everything we had to say,” Johnson said. “We got as much work as we possibly could. They would tell us that, and this isn’t towards anything, a lot of times before our staff got here, they would just go home, or they wouldn’t have practice. But, we still found a way to get better.”
Northwood went by three doctrines in its workouts and practices: work hard, get one percent better and work together as a team.
Going by those values day in and day out helped foster a greater sense of confidence amongst the players ahead of week one, unlike last season when the energy wasn’t as high before the season started.
The Chargers began the 2022 season with a 53-20 loss to a 3A Lee County team. Going into the 2023 opener against 4A Riverside-Durham, they knew the outcome would be different.
“We expected us to do very well this season,” junior Antoine Brewington said. “We came out with a high energy even though we still lost the first game. We were still like, ‘we got this’.”
Said Ritchey, “Last week’s first week was just a little bit more down. We were not comfortable in the situation we were put in. We played against a good Lee County team last year, and this year we played against a really good Riverside team and actually ended up competing with them even though we lost. We learned a lot that game, and honestly, win or lose, we had fun.”
Johnson and his team weren’t quite where they needed to be after the 35-21 loss to Riverside-Durham, but they showed the potential for a successful season.
It only took one week to know that having a great year was for certain.
In week two, the Chargers hosted 3A Union Pines and won, 20-19, despite facing hydration issues, injuries, ejections and two touchdowns called back.
“I think that was the signature moment of this team,” Johnson said. “There were two signature moments this year…Our win against Union Pines made everybody believe in everybody on the team because it took everybody in the program to win.”
The other signature moment, once again, came just one week later.
Northwood got a rude awakening in a 38-12 loss to a run-heavy North Moore team, despite missing middle linebacker Mason Powell and losing Fortunes for a significant amount of time during the game due to injury.
“That was a moment that we needed to get smacked in the mouth,” Johnson said. “North Moore does a great job with that for everybody. I think (for) the players, from talking to them and talking to coach B.J., that’s when they started believing in us and started listening to us because the ways that they had been trying to do it wasn’t working.”
With the players and coaches on the same page, Northwood ripped off five wins in a row, including a 54-20 rout over a Seaforth team they struggled with a year prior and a 55-9 beat down over a Southeast Alamance team that’s in the third round of the state playoffs.
That stretch built even more self-assurance for Northwood leading into its biggest game of the season against Cummings, a chance to claim the top spot in the conference against one of the state’s best players in running back Jonathan Paylor.
“Leading up to that week, that was the most confident, me, I’ve ever felt and, as a team, we’ve ever felt going into a game,” Fortunes said. “You could just tell that we were ready to play.”
Northwood lost Fortunes to injury early in that game and didn’t exactly get a fair shot to prove that it was the best team in the conference in a 48-29 loss. Nevertheless, the Chargers, now with six wins, knew they would be playing for a week 11, something they missed out on in 2022.
The season ended with a first-round loss at Louisburg, ending the ride for Northwood’s seniors that went through the good, bad and ugly with the program in years prior.
But, winning seven games with a playoff appearance set a foundation for greater heights in the following years under Johnson.
Northwood has more than enough pieces to build on its one-year turn around, returning Ritchey, Brewington, running back Robert Tripp and downfield threats in Cam Fowler and Isaiah Blair. At quarterback, they’ll have rising junior Grayson Cox, who stepped in for the Chargers and threw for 10 touchdowns and 705 yards in the final two games of the regular season.
With players buying into the program and its established standard, the only uncertainty going into 2024 should be how much further Northwood can go.
“I think we’re going to have a big chip on our shoulder,” Ritchey said. “I talk about wanting to prove something, I think we’re going to prove even more.”