With a No. 5 seed in the Class 3-AA playoffs, D.H. Conley knows that Friday night’s game likely will be its last in front of its home fans this season.
That only heightens the preparation for what the Vikings (10-1), champions of the Eastern Carolina 3-A/4-A Conference hope will be a long stay.
Conley, fresh off a 78-43 blitzing of rival South Central, kicks off the state high school football playoffs at 7:30 p.m. against 12th-seeded Northern Guilford (6-5). Head coach Nate Conner said his senior-laden team has stuck to its routine, although there is an air of urgency facing a one-and-done scenario each time the Vikings step on the field now.
“We haven’t changed our routine … but there is that thought of each day is a day less,” Conner said. “We only have Friday night guaranteed right now, so that helps when going to practice. Every rep is that much more special, every time you put that helmet on, it’s special because your time is dwindling down. We want to keep that going, and that’s what is exciting. You win, you keep it going, You lose, it’s all over.”
Conley brings in a 10-game win streak with its only loss coming to undefeated Northeastern, the top seed in the Class 2-AA bracket. Still the Vikings are seeded behind No. 1 Clayton (11-0), New Hanover (10-1), Lee County (11-0) and Eastern Guilford (9-2), which fell to Weddington 33-20 in state finals last year
The Vikings would travel to Eastern Guilford next week if both higher seeds prevail. The Wildcats host 13th-seeded Durham Hillside (5-5) on Friday.
“The whole 3-AA is loaded,” Conner said. “You’ve got two teams that played for the championship in small 4-A are seeded lower than us (Dudley at No. 10 and Cape Fear at No. 11). You’ve got a team (Eastern Guilford) that played for it in the big 3-A last year in the east. Then you’ve got New Hanover and a couple of undefeated teams. We’re 10 and 1 and a five seed.
“It would have been great to have been the four seed … to have the chance to have two home playoff games,” Conner said. “But I’m excited about our opportunity on Friday. That was out of our control. It’s true playoff football. That’s what I’m excited about. Everybody, you better bring it or you’ll be going home.”
Northern Guilford brings in a winning tradition with four state championships in eight years and a pass-oriented offense. The Wildcats’ first four losses this season were by a combined 32 points before being shut out 33-0 against Western Alamance in their regular-season finale.
Junior quarterback Jakob Lenard and Tyler Clippen have each seen time running the offense and combined to throw for nearly 2,500 yards. Lenard has played in 10 games, completing 115 of 251 passes for 1,924 yards with 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Clippen has appeared in four games, completing 44 of 92 passes for 548 yards with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Ford Moser and Justin Julian have been the primary targets, hauling in 11 touchdown catches each. Moser, a 6-0, 175-pound junior, has a team-high 72 catches for 1,154 yards. Julian, a 5-9, 170-pound senior, has 35 receptions for 683 yards. Chad Turner, a 5-7, 155-pound sophomore, has chipped in with 25 catches for 374 yards and three touchdowns.
Junior Jaquan Jones leads the Nighthawks in rushing with 320 yards on 60 carries.
Conner said preparing for an unfamiliar opponent and pass-oriented offense did not create added teaching, especially since the Vikings face a spread offense in practice each day.
“They have their own spin on it, but our defense sees a spread offense even when they’re not preparing for a spread offense,” he said. “I think the unfamiliarity is exciting. You get to put your brand in the east. We were conference champions, we did really well here. Now we get to go against someone in that part of the state. I think that’s what high school playoffs are all about. I’m excited to see how our guys match up against what they do.”
The matchup against the Nighthawks’ defense is intriguing. Northern Guilford allowed more than 30 just three times (once in a double-overtime game) and limited six opponents to 14 points or less.
Conley, led by senior quarterback Holton Ahlers and junior receiver C.J. Johnson, averages 54.0 points per game. Ahlers passed for 551 yards and nine touchdowns last week in the win over South Central giving him 3,156 passing yards with 52 touchdowns and just three interceptions this year. He also leads the Vikings in rushing with 797 yards and 13 scores.
Johnson has a team-high 56 receptions for 1,277 yards and 23 touchdowns, but five other receivers have double-digit catches. Jaquavion Bridges and Matthew Rostar had 40 catches each. Bridges has 679 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns, and Rostar has 599 receiving yards and 10 scores.
Sophomore Charlie Dees hauled in his second touchdown catch last week and has 18 receptions for 278 yards on the season.
The Vikings needed all that firepower last week to get past South Central, roaring back from a 21-7 deficit to lead 50-43 at the half, then stuffing the Falcons the final two quarters. Conner said that performance verified what he already knew about his team but was glad to witness.
“We haven’t been challenged in a game where we’ve been down and faced some adversity in a while,” he said. “For us to be losing 21-7 early and respond the way we did and calm down and just play the second half with the mentality we did, it was very exciting and it gave us more confidence going into this playoff run that it’s not always going to be great.
“It just reassured that, hey, these guys can fight their way out of anything, they’re not going to give up. They are a tough, resilient bunch that leans on one another. They didn’t point fingers, they didn’t make excuses. They came back and played hard and got coached up, and that’s what I was really proud of.”