There’s something to be said for having big-game experience, and Shelby football has plenty of it.
The Golden Lions built a 21-0 lead in the first half Saturday afternoon on their way to a 42-21 win over the North Davidson Black Knights in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2AA state title game at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium.
Led by junior quarterback Isaiah Bess (17-of-26, 192, 3 TDs) and a defense that forced four turnovers, Shelby (13-3) overcame four turnovers of its own to capture its fifth state NCHSAA championship in the last six years and 10th overall.
The Golden Lions also won their NCHSAA-best 103rd playoff game, capping off a season that included a 1-3 start followed by a 12-game winning streak.
“I’m so proud of these guys. I told them (before the game) it was time to write the last chapter,” Shelby head coach Lance Ware said. “Our coaching staff never wavered, and the guys who led our team never wavered.”
Shelby opened the scoring with a defensive touchdown midway through the second quarter when sophomore linebacker Jack Hollifield intercepted North Davidson quarterback Landon Moore and romped 94 yards the other way.
The lead grew to 21-0 early in the second quarter after Bess found junior wide receiver Diavonni Daley on touchdown passes of 20 and 22 yards. Daley hauled in six catches for 103 yards and the two scores on his way to earning Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors.
North Davidson (13-3) pulled to within two scores with 8:38 left in the second quarter when Devon Welch scored from three yards out, but the Black Knights struggled to sustain offensive rhythm throughout the afternoon in their first state championship appearance.
“We just ran into a good Shelby team and we turned it over four times, and you can’t do that,” North Davidson head coach Brian Flynn said. “We drove the ball, got yards on yards on yards but couldn’t get any points.”
Following Welch’s touchdown run, North’s next three drives ended in an interception, a fumble and a turnover on downs, preventing the Knights from building any momentum and taking advantage when Shelby’s offense was having ball security issues of its own.
Shelby extended its lead to three scores again late in the third quarter when Bess, the game’s MVP, hit senior wide receiver Fabian Pettis on an 18-yard score.
North answered with an 11-play, 50-yard scoring drive to make it a two-score game again, but Shelby quickly responded with another scoring drive to make it 35-14.
Senior Themus Fulks led the way for North all afternoon, hauling in seven catches for 127 yards and recording two interceptions on defense. Fulks earned Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors for North, while defensive end Blake Stephens (10 tackles, 3.5 sacks) was named Most Outstanding Defensive Player.
SHELBY’S ‘FLIPS’ KEY TO ANOTHER TITLE RUN
Three months ago, Shelby was 1-3 after a 27-6 loss to rival Crest.
The Golden Lions were in search of an identity, Ware said, and they desperately needed to turn things around.
“Everybody points to the Kings Mountain game where we turned it around, but we did some soul searching early and moved some people around and changed some attitudes,” Ware said prior to Saturday’s game. “We built on that and carried that momentum through the whole season.”
The season culminated with Saturday’s title, but even in the title game, there was a moment when Shelby needed to turn things around.
It came early, as North Davidson marched down the field on its first possession.
The Black Knights had covered 70 yards, including a 62-yard pass from Moore to Fulks, and were inside the Shelby 10 looking to take an early lead. Their offense was clicking.
But on 3rd and 4 from the 10-yard line, Shelby’s Hollifield made a great read and took the game’s first interception 94 yards for a score.
“I thought our defense played great all night, (but the interception) really set the tone early and flipped the whole game,” Ware said. “They are in our territory driving down to score, and (Jack) showed off his wheels.”
Flynn felt the momentum shift, too.
“Mentally, that’s deflating because you drive down the field and you have a mishap on one of our (run/pass options). Just bad timing there for sure,” he said.
Hollifield, whose brother Dax plays for Virginia Tech, said he knew he had a chance to make a play.
“I just saw one of our defensive linemen giving really good pressure. I knew he was about to throw it, and I read it perfectly and picked it of,” he said.
With a big grin, Hollifield described what happened next: “I’m slow, so I don’t know how I scored. One of my defensive linemen made an awesome block.”
The pick-six turned the game on its head early, and like it did all season following a rough start, Shelby never looked back.
“We expected, even at 1-3, to be playing in this game. It’s a tribute to the work they put in and the way our coaching staff hung in there,” Ware said. “You get to this point, you don’t get to enjoy it until you look back. We hung in there at 1-3. This is a really special championship.”
RESILIENT NORTH DAVIDSON PROUD TO MAKE TITLE GAME
Flynn said this week that his team felt “privileged” to be making its first state title appearance, but the Black Knights didn’t come to Raleigh for the appearance.
They had plans of winning, of downing a traditional power to capture their first championship.
“We’re runners-up and that’s fantastic. We knew we had a lot coming back, and this bunch right here would make it happen,” he said. “I can’t be more proud of this group. Getting here and winning are two different things.”
Now, Flynn said, he hopes his next group of leaders will be able to continue building the program into a sustainable contender.
“Hopefully, moving forward with our underclassmen, they now have a feel for it and we can keep this thing rolling,” Flynn said. “I’m super proud of these guys. We faced adversity all year. Injuries, weather issues this week with the snow. These guys are resilient.”