STEVENSVILLE — The Bulldogs’ defense continues making its mark against all competition.
Friday night at Andy Schipul Stadium, the North Caroline High football team made a final-minute stand against a desperate Kent Island offense, this after playing from behind and needing some help from the offense.
Senior Jason Brown intercepted Buccaneers sophomore quarterback Matthew Burnside just shy of the end zone with 18 seconds remaining, locking up a 28-21 victory for Caroline that pushed its record to 8-0 entering the regular season’s final week.
“We knew we were going to have a tough game,” Bulldogs head coach James McCormick said. “We need to play a little bit better than we played tonight. We were a little bit sloppy, but this was a good game to test us, to see what kind of character our kids have. Fortunately, we got tested, and came out on the right side.
“We’re going to put some points on the board when we can, but our defense sets the tone for everything,” McCormick added. “They’ve been playing great all season, they stepped up in the second half today, and they made some stops when they had to. We’re proud of them.”
The Bulldogs went ahead 28-21 in an intense, chippy, and uncharacteristically messy game between two of the premier programs on the Eastern Shore, the 8-yard touchdown catch by senior Montreyse Deshields coming from classmate and quarterback Wyatt LaClair with only 45 seconds left to play. Junior Kyler Boyd split the uprights to cap the scoring and a 4-for-4 night on point-after touchdowns.
Caroline’s defense yielded 210 total yards of offense to the Bucs, and twice picked off Burnside (7 of 19, 102 yards, two TDs). The Kent Island rushing game struggled even worse, as a 50-yard run by senior Isaiah Shockley — the longest from scrimmage against the Bulldogs in 2019 — accounted for nearly half of the 108 total on the ground.
“We had to come out and think it’s 0-0 (at halftime),” senior Caroline defender Kendron Wayman said. “Beginning of the second half, we really turned it on. The plan was to keep the edge, not let them get near that.”
Added McCormick: “We talked to our kids Monday morning about having strong timber on our team. The strongest trees don’t grow in sunny pastures. They’ve got to be tested. We told our guys our roots are pretty good, they go down deep, we know what we got, and it’s good when you get tested like that a little bit and find out what you’re made of.”
The Buccaneers (5-3) took over on Caroline’s 43 following another squib kick, but Burnside was off on the first pass before lofting one toward the end zone and into triple coverage.
The pass — intended for Kent Island senior wideout Connor Antonelli — ended up in Brown’s sure hands, while Antonelli and two Bulldog defenders ended up in a pile, clinching the victory with 11 seconds left.
“Safety position, it’s a ball hawk,” Brown said. “Seeing the ball in the air, I just had to go get it, make sure I come down with it and seal the game. It wasn’t anything special, we had seen pretty much everything up to this point.
“They were going to put their toes to the lines and we just had to put our toes to the lines,” Brown added. “They are a pretty good, solid football (team), so we knew we were in a hard battle and we just had to get tough.”
The opening kickoff was a semi-squib by Caroline, which took a friendly bounce and ended up in the hands of Bulldogs senior Rhian Silsley. The Bulldogs’ drive stalled when senior Michael Stumpf fumbled after a short catch, recovered by Shockley, but the Bucs gave it back after three short runs and a punt.
North Caroline broke through on the ensuing drive, ending with a 13-yard TD catch by Brown from LaClair. The Bucs answered, finishing a 69-yard possession when Burnside lofted a perfect pass over the defense to Shockley, who hauled in the 36-yarder for a score.
It was 14-7 with 10 minutes, 28 seconds left in the second period, as junior Ethan Dvorack (game highs of 12 carries, 116 yards) ran off the left side and into the end zone for a 33-yard Caroline touchdown. Kent Island was back in the scoring column with 6:23 left before the break on a 5-yard TD catch by senior Chaney Skeans from Burnside, but the snap for the PAT sailed high, and a host of Bucs, including senior kicker Joseph Garvey, took some big hits while the ball was loose.
The 14-13, Caroline lead held up into halftime, and the Bulldogs were officially in their tightest game of the year since a Week 1, 7-6 win over Parkside, the Bayside Conference’s undisputed second banana at a solid 7-1.
Caroline also committed 10 total penalties, including a few that wiped out chunk plays.
“If I knew, I’d take care of it,” McCormick said coyly when asked about emotions getting a hold on some of the penalties. “We weren’t as clean as we have been, and that’s my fault. We’ll clean it up and make sure we’re right next time.”
Down a point, and after senior Delano Nicholson intercepted LaClair deep in Caroline territory, the Bucs went ahead for the only time midway through the third, Shockley scoring from 5 yards out and Burnside converting the two-point sneak for a 21-14 Kent Island lead.
The seven-point difference held through the end of the third, when Caroline turned up the intensity another notch and a playoff-like atmosphere broke out.
“Just another Kent Island-North Caroline game,” Bucs head coach Damian Ferragamo said of the escalating rivalry between the two schools. “I don’t know why anybody expected any different than this. We were hoping we would come up on the winning end, but we didn’t.
“The wins don’t matter that much right now, we’re counting playoff points,” Ferragamo added of his team’s precarious situation in the Class 2A East Region; the results will not be made official until early this week. “Some stuff happened around the state today, maybe qualifies us, maybe doesn’t, but we have to find out either way. We’re going into the last week of the season thinking we need to win to extend it. And if we don’t, we still need to win, because there are only so many games in a high school player’s life.”
Taking over on its own 48 following a Kent Island punt, the Bulldogs ate up some quick yards on an 18-yard carry by senior Zamir Dennis, and Dennis later finished the possession with a 2-yard TD run. The Buccaneers were set up well on their own 40 following a bruising return by Shockley, but quickly went three-and-out and punted with 5:18 left.
On the winning drive, LaClair began with a quick 9-yard strike to Deshields, and Dvorack netted a new set of downs later on an 11-yard, third-down carry. Following three strong defensive stops by Kent Island, Caroline went for it on fourth down and on Kent Island’s 43, and Deshields bounced off the edge and picked up 14 tough yards.
Two plays later, Deshields sealed it on the 8-yard TD catch, snatching the ball out of the air and fighting off Antonelli before making it into the end zone, drawing an eruption from the well-traveled Caroline fans urging their team through another spectacular season.
The defense took it from there. The unit has come up big repeatedly while the offense found its footing, and now the two are working in concert. Battle-tested can also be worked into the adjectives, considering the postseason-level ferociousness demonstrated by both sides could be a harbinger of things to come when the campaign reaches the knockout stage.
“We prepared this week, and we tried to do the best that we can,” Wayman said. “We came out pretty close, but we didn’t give up. Our defense, we had it on lockdown, we knew that. All game, we had mistakes, but we stepped it up.”
Added Brown: “We’re just treating every team like they’re the best team in the league. Every game is a playoff game, that’s the mentality we have. We just want to play and get after it. We want to make a long run and have a good year.”
The Bulldogs finished with a stout 367 yards on 59 plays, including big games from Deshields (10 rushes, 79 yards; 28 yards receiving), Brown (five catches, 64 yards), and a solid if not spectacular performance by LaClair (10 of 17 passing, 103 yards, two scores). North Caroline hosts Colonel Richardson on Friday during Rivalry Week, while the Buccaneers travel to face Queen Anne’s County.
Caroline is still in the discussion for the top seed, while the Bucs are simply trying to stay in the hunt, for now.
“Our region is the most unique region in the state of Maryland,” Ferragamo said. “Because we have two conferences that don’t play each other (Bayside Conference and Upper Chesapeake Bay Athletic Conference), and the Cecil County conference, they have two groups who don’t play each other, so it’s almost like three conferences.
“There are three undefeated teams in our region, and three one-loss teams in our region,” Ferragamo added. “This is the toughest region to make the playoffs in.”