As Harnett Central’s six football seniors walked their final lap around their home football field after Friday’s 28-14 win over arch rival Triton — a program tradition on senior night — they couldn’t help but tear up as they thought back to where they’d been.
The Trojans went 2-9 their freshman year, leading to the arrival of head coach Matt Migliore. Central matched that mark in 2017 and went 1-9 last season. Three years into their high school career and the varsity program had only amassed a total of five wins.
It’s a struggle that long predated their varsity tenure. In the five years leading up to their freshman year, Central went a combined 13-40 with five-straight losing seasons. The last winning season for the program came in 2010, one year removed from the Trojans’ run to the 2009 NCHSAA 4A state championship.
“To put that in context, most of these kids were in second and third grade, and our sophomores were in first grade,” Migliore said.
With Friday’s win over Triton, Central broke that eight-year streak and finished the season with a 6-5 record.
It still didn’t come easily this season. The Trojans had to overcome a lot, including an injury to star offensive lineman Cameron Hicks in the first game of the season and the dismissal of multiple key players after internal disputes. And nearly every game they played this season was tightly contested, with four of the 11 being decided by one score and three more being decided by two scores.
Friday night’s win over Triton was no cake walk. The Hawks got the opening score of the game, and though Central took a 14-6 lead on its first possession of the third quarter, Triton tied it up heading into the final period.
Central leaned on its senior leadership though in the fourth quarter. With the ball at their own 45-yard line, the Trojans ran their “Hitch-’N’-Pitch” play as junior quarterback Jaden Bryant threw a quick pass toward the right sideline to senior tight end Jackson Jones, who lateraled the ball to senior receiver Everett Blake, who did the rest, taking it 55 yards to the house for the go-ahead score.
“I was scared somebody was gonna catch my slow tail,” Blake said with a laugh as he walked down the final stretch of the field. “It was a throwback to my freshman year. We were up 28-20 and I caught the game-winning interception. It’s just an unbelievable feeling to go out this way.”
Migliore had nothing but praise for Blake, his senior captain.
“He’s just the ultimate leader,” Migliore said. “He’s never flinched. For having three years that were not very successful, he’s believed everything we’ve told him. He’s just the ultimate leader and has a tireless work ethic. He doesn’t really look the part, but he sure is a big gamer.”
After Central added another score after a botched Triton punt, Jones put the final nail in the coffin by sacking Hawks QB J.P. Petoletti on fourth down, allowing the Trojans to run out the clock.
One of Migliore’s coaching philosophies is to give his team a word of the week for each week of the season. This week’s word was “finish.”
“I think we finished tonight,” Migliore said with a grin. “We didn’t have our best night offensively but our defense played their butts off for four quarters. And with the game tied going into the fourth quarter, we stepped up and made plays when we needed them... Having only five seniors on the field, it’s tough on those because you want to lean heavily on senior leadership. But they really rose to the occasion, not just tonight but all season long.”
As the six seniors turned the corner around the end zone for the final 120 yards of their walk, one couldn’t help but think that this is the group that helped the program turn the corner.
The Trojans, victorious in their final battle, looked at the torn up gridiron and proudly remarked, “That’s a battlefield right there.”
“When we got here, we talked about breaking the cycle,” Migliore said. “We’ve had one-win, two-win, three-win seasons and people have been OK with that. When we got here we put our foot on the ground and said, ‘No, that’s not OK.’ So to be the class that broke the cycle and set this thing in the right direction, that’s huge, and I think people will forever remember this group.”