Playing in the eastern regional championship for the fourth straight year sure hasn’t gotten old for the Havelock Rams.
"They’re excited," Havelock coach Jim Bob Bryant said of his players. "They know that making it this far in the playoffs is a blessing. Every team in the state doesn’t get the chance to do that. Right now there are only 16 football teams in the state practicing. We’re one of the 16, so we feel very blessed and we’re excited for the opportunity to play a good Orange football team."
The Rams (13-1) take on Orange (11-2) for the eastern 3A title at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Havelock High.
Bryant said Orange has a balanced offense with big-play potential and a very good defense with a lot of size.
"They’re big all the way around," Bryant said. "They’ve got a big football team, so it’s going to be a real challenge for us. This is the best team we’ve played by far in the playoffs."
The Panthers give up just 10 points per game and have recorded three shutouts this season. Last week, Orange came up with four turnovers and shut down explosive Eastern Alamance 14-13 to advance to Friday’s title game.
"They’ve been averaging in the playoffs getting about four or five turnovers a game," Bryant said. "They do really well at getting you to turn the ball over, so we’re going to have to be careful with the football, wrap it up and not throw interceptions."
The Rams average 48 points per game behind Derrell Scott, the school’s all-time leading rusher, who has 1,475 yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground this season. Quarterback Pharoh Cooper has thrown for 2,571 yards and 20 touchdowns with just six interceptions. But he’s also gained 1,081 yards rushing with 13 TDs.
Meanwhile, the Ram defense has posted two shutouts in the playoffs and came up with three turnovers in last week’s 57-7 victory over Washington, which managed just 86 total yards.
"Our defense is playing great," Bryant said. "It makes the offensive play-calling a lot easier when you’re giving up less than three points per game in the playoffs."
Orange counters with three-year starter Sean Motley at quarterback, and big-play potential with backs Jalen Pittman and Patrick Pettiford, both of whom have rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season. Last week against Eastern Alamance, the Panthers totaled 214 yards, 79 of which came on the ground.
"The quarterback’s 6-foot, 210, and he’s a tough runner and has a really strong arm," Bryant said. "They like to throw it down the field. Their quarterback has a big arm. He can throw it a long ways. He’s a very accurate down-the-field passer, and they have two backs that can take it to the house at any time."
Bryant said the Rams shouldn’t have to make major defensive changes.
"We’ll make a couple of little adjustments, but we’ll run several different fronts like we do against other teams," he said. "We’ll run our base defense with a few change-ups thrown in."
The Rams beat Cleveland 64-7 in last year’s eastern regional championship game — on the way to the state title — but lost to Eastern Alamance in 2009 and 2010.
"For four years in a row, we’ve got to play the eastern finals in Havelock," Bryant said. "That’s what I told the guys, that this would be their senior night, the eastern finals every year, that their final game on their home field would be the eastern finals every year. That’s our goal."
The winner advances to the state championship game at 3 p.m. on Dec. 1 at Wake Forest to play the winner of the western championship, either Concord or Freedom.