ERWIN — If there’s one thing 28th-seeded Triton (8-5) has proved to anyone bothering to pay attention this month, a fourth-round matchup at undefeated Northern Nash (13-0) Friday won’t be reason for trepidation.
Ben Penny’s program-history-making bunch has already knocked off the 3A East’s fifth, 21st and 20th seeds during the North Carolina High School Athletic Association football playoffs.
Winners of four straight, dating back to the season-finale shutout of Harnett Central, the Hawks have outscored opponents 173-79 and aren’t showing any signs of slowing down.
“We’ve just got to continue to build off what we’ve accomplished the last three weeks. Our football team, right now, believes that they are just as good as anybody that they have faced or will face,” Penny said following Tuesday’s team practice.
“Northern Nash is a good football team. They’re undefeated for a reason, they’re the No. 1 seed for a reason, but we’re excited for the challenge.”
A talented Triton roster is near full strength and is playing an almost-flawless brand of football.
The team has committed just one turnover this postseason, while earning nine takeaways.
During the third-round win over Jacksonville last week, turnover margin was the deciding factor. Ross Stevens’ second fumble recovery of the night, following a Nathan McKoy sack-forced fumble combination, clinched the Hawks’ first ever regional semifinal berth.
Meanwhile, senior quarterback Jalen Evans is putting up some of the best numbers in his prep career.
Throughout the playoffs he’s totaled 190 yards rushing and three scores to go with 174 yards passing and five TDs to no interceptions.
Evans will most likely have to out-duel Northern Nash QB Trevell Jones this week if he wants the Hawks to advance.
Jones, the Big East 2A/3A Conference’s leading passer, has thrown for over 1,900 yards and 29 TDs to just four interceptions while collecting over 400 yards rushing and eight scores on the ground. He currently holds scholarship offers from Ferrum College and St. Augustine University.
After facing ground-oriented teams during the historic run, Penny acknowledges that Jones will have his utmost attention.
“He is a very dynamic player. He throws very well, he can run very well and he seems to be a very smart football player,” said the ninth-year Hawks coach. “We haven’t seen a guy like that in a while.”
Penny added that the Knights pose a defense similar to his in that they possess a bevy of physical playmakers at the linebacker level.
He feels the misdirection running attack is more important than ever and, as was the case against Jacksonville, isn’t afraid to go engage in a shootout, if necessary.
“We want to get in a track meet with the guys. We trust our speed, we believe in our players,” said Penny.
“They’re gonna score some points, so we just gotta keep on pounding. And we did that last week so, hopefully, that mentality will carry over with our guys.”
With four of the team’s five losses this year coming against 4A teams that all reached the postseason tournament, and the lone 3A defeat coming to a fourth-round Terry Sanford squad, Triton’s confidence comes from previous tests.
It’s why game days right now are more of a celebration than would normally be expected from a group of first-timers.
“We’re having fun. We’re winning, we like winning and we like that taste that we get from victory,” Penny said.
Triton is the first Harnett County football team to reach the fourth round since Central’s state runner-up squad in 2009.
It’s the reason local businesses are proudly displaying signs of support and faculty members are giddy to line the team buses with cheers and applause before each trip.
“It’s been tremendous ... it’s been emotional. We haven’t seen anything like this, as coaches, in a long time here,” said Penny.
“And the players have never seen it, and I think they’re feeding off of it. The community is rallying and they got these guys’ backs and they see that and they want to go put on for the community members.”
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m., with the winner advancing to the 3A East final to face either Seventy-First or Terry Sanford.