Excessive College Soccer: Hornets Superior within the Finish – Salisbury Publish
Posted by Mike London
RALEIGH – In the end, the strangest season turned out to be the toughest season.
On Thursday night at Carter Finley Stadium, Salisbury football fans finally had the chance to stop biting their fingernails and sit back and enjoy the show.
Salisbury’s 42:14 triumph over St. Pauls in the 2AA state championship was over relatively early. After standing on the goal line and driving 99 meters for a lead of three touchdowns in the third quarter, it was almost there. Partying was a viable option after a touchdown pass from Vance Honeycutt to Jalon Walker provided a four-TD pillow with 10:28 to play.
That was 10 minutes, 28 seconds of pure relief and pure joy.
Fans and cheerleaders danced. The players were happy. Trainers hugged.
You can bet Jeremiah Booker will remember his only stretcher for the rest of his life.
Senior Zae Clay will make many stops in college but he will never forget making the final tackle of the title game for the Hornets.
“It was nice to have someone who didn’t have a last-minute Wade Robins field goal,” said Robins’ buddy Will Fowler, a state golf qualifier and huge soccer fanatic.
Robins’ right foot, which started from the left hash, was never a routine combination for a kicker, and it saw the victory over the great teams of Burns and North Davidson.
State championships, including subdivided state championships, are incredible accomplishments. Think of all those strong Salisbury teams from 2008 to 2012. All five were talented enough. Only the 2010 crew won a state championship.
West Rowan and Carson Softball and Salisbury Girls Soccer, standout teams with great players and great coaches, were knocked out of the playoffs on Friday less than 24 hours after Salisbury Football won, which is a reminder of how difficult it is to be on the big stage to get to, much less performance at your peak when you get there.
But throw away half a dozen crazy minutes bridging Q1 and Q2 and the Hornets were really solid on Thursday. They were clearly the superior team and dominated the scrimmage line on either side of the ball.
MVP Vance Honeycutt (four rushing TDs) and the “standout” winners JyMikaah Wells (attack) and Nick Hall (defense) were obviously special, but so were Jalon Walker, Clay, Jaden Gaither, Marcus Cook, newcomers Mike Geter and Deuce Walker and a host of others.
Head coach Brian Hinson named Zae Neal, a 5-foot-10, 170-pound DB who plays more of a linebacker role, the “unsung hero” of the season.
Salisbury’s defense lost eight tackles on Thursday night. Salisbury got 10 third down stops and three fourth down stops. Clay, Hall, and Reed Fugle had sacks.
St. Pauls (8-1) actually had more ball in terms of possession time, but that was mainly because Salisbury (9-2) could score much faster. That 99-yard drive to the goal scoring only took six snaps and two minutes.
“Great work from Salisbury with the stand on the goal line and it took the wind out of the sails,” said Mike Setzer, St. Pauls coach. “We really had to hit it there.”
In search of the roots of Salisbury’s most recent championship, you have to go back to March 2017 when Hinson was hired as head coach.
It’s easy to forget now that Salisbury were 14-32 on the field and officially 11-35 after three losses in the four seasons before Hinson was hired. Salisbury is believed to always have good football because there is always a deep pool of athletes, but the hornets have suffered from droughts throughout their history. Athletes need structure, discipline, guidance, motivation and support. Hinson and his staff made it available.
“This championship was four years in the making,” said Hinson.
The turnaround began in the fall of 2017. There was a five-game winning streak, a 4-7 record, and a first-round playoff loss to Red Springs, a school about 14 miles west of St. Pauls.
The 2018 season brought Ashe County a 5-7 record and one loss in the first round of the playoffs, but the Hornets made a big leap in 2019 when they played a regular 9-2 season.
They were assigned to the 2AA East bracket for the playoffs, which meant some monster road trips, but they accepted the quest. They won in Washington, won in Hertford County, won in Randleman. They made it to the 2019 state championship game and combined the school record with 13 wins, but fought offensively on the big stage and lost 34-0. Probably they weren’t quite finished and Shelby was great.
“Shelby was a different animal,” said Hinson. “A great football team.”
If the Hornets were a very good football team in December 2019 with 14 returning starters, they were a potentially great one for the 2020 season. However, this season would be postponed to spring 2021.
They started preparing for it in June, almost a year ago, lifting massive weights outdoors when COVID restrictions kept them out of their own weight room. They couldn’t touch soccer for a while, but things started to unite, especially after Honeycutt returned from his summer baseball adventures with the South Charlotte Panthers to devote himself to the soccer program.
Talented as they were, there were many challenges ahead. The Central Carolina Conference is one hell of a football league. Even in 2019, when the Hornets contested their playoffs, they finished second in the CCC.
This season they finished third. They lost to Oak Grove (Jalon Walker was injured) in week 2 and to North Davidson in week 4.
“We didn’t do our best and we lost to two good football teams,” said Hinson.
Those were hard times. Expectations were sky high and it looked like the hornets would be disappointed. Critics came from the woodworks. It has been suggested that it was a coincidence that by 2019 they managed to benefit from a weaker Eastern bracket.
None of the chatter was pleasant. The train was much less crowded. The hornets used it as motivation.
“That North Davidson loss was on a Thursday and I didn’t think I’d prepared the guys very well,” said Hinson. “But after that I thought we did a lot better as employees to concentrate and prepare the team for the game. I’ll take the blame for the losses, but give the children the credit for the victories. We were 2-2 after North Davidson and played for our playoff lives every week, but they got the job done. “
Another loss and they were done. That loss never arrived.
In week 5, when the Hornets went to Central Davidson, which was 3-1 and only lost to Oak Grove, they were only light favorites but they played lockdown defense. Then over the next week they put it all together and destroyed a highly respected Ledford team. That night the team announced that there were opportunities for the state championship.
“Our offense was usually not nice,” said Hinson. “Everyone wants you to spread it out and toss it around, but we were always first. We’ve always been pretty good at defense. “
Salisbury was number 7 in a group of eight teams so it never had the advantage of a home game in the playoffs. The hornets blew out Maiden who came in unbeaten. Then a lot of defense and two clutch kicks lifted them past Burns and North Davidson and got them into the championship game.
It was sure to be a redemption game on Thursday evening. The hornets made it count. They left no doubt. Robins was just asked to do lots of kickoffs and lots of PATS.
The result was what Defense Coordinator Mike Herndon expected.
“When they saw St. Pauls in the film, they were good and athletic,” said Herndon. “But they weren’t Shelby.”
When first hired, Hinson quickly agreed that Salisbury was a place to win championships.
Coaches need players. Salisbury has players.
He didn’t promise miracles, just blood, sweat, and tears. He and his staff provided the motivation and inspiration, and the players provided the sweat. You made it happen.
Subdivided classifications for soccer are now being made in the history books.
From this fall there will only be 2A – no more 2AA and 2A.
The hornets move forward. You are moving on to a new conference. They have never won a conference championship in the current direction of the CCC, but this league has strengthened them for all the playoff successes they have seen. Eight playoff wins in two seasons – only one of them in the Ludwig Stadium – is something to scream about. As a street fighter, Rowan County has never seen anything like it.
You will be completing great players in a couple of weeks. Honeycutt and Clay, who have consecutively won CCC Lineman of the Year awards, will be hard to replace, but Salisbury has great returning players, athletes and leaders.
The hornets are here to stay, or at least as long as Hinson, who added AD to his duties before this school year, stays.
He was a college coach, but decided in 2017 that coaching high school athletes was his calling.
That was a happy decision for Salisbury High.
More victories, more celebrations, and more memories are sure to come.