North Carolina Central football has the chance to become the first team in program history to win three straight conference championships.
But while hoopla and high expectations surround the players and coaches, a small dark cloud hovers in the background.
It’s 2014: The Eagles were on the road at conference opponent Morgan State. On paper, the matchup was a no-brainer, but that’s why they play the game. NCCU lost 21-20 after leading 20-7 in the fourth quarter. NCCU wound up in a five-way tie for the title. Morgan won the tiebreaker and advanced to the NCAA Division I- FCS playoffs.
It’s 2015: The Eagles led two-time champion Bethune-Cookman by 19 points, but the Wildcats rallied to go ahead by two. On its last drive of the game, NCCU was within field goal range, but the kick was blocked. This time, there was a three-way tie for first, and bitter rival N.C. A&T got the tiebreaker and headed to the inaugural Air Force Celebration Bowl.
Two MEAC titles.
No postseason road trip.
“At the end of the day, us not finishing that (Bethune) game was our fault,” said redshirt senior quarterback Malcolm Bell at the recent MEAC Football Luncheon. “We didn’t go to the Celebration Bowl because of us, so it’s our fault. So our motto is just finish every game.”
Bell, who is eighth among NCCU passing leaders with 3,909 yards, will lead an explosive offense with seven returning starters from last season.
Joining him in the backfield will be redshirt sophomore Dorrel McClain, the 2015 MEAC Rookie of the Year. McClain rushed for 958 yards and eight touchdowns, second best in the conference.
“He has put on some weight and gotten stronger in the weight room,” coach Jerry Mack said. “He runs the ball with more maturity than a typical player going into his sophomore year, so we’re excited about what he is going to be able to bring to the table.”
Bell has a veteran core of wide receivers from which to chose from, and none bigger than redshirt senior Quentin Atkinson and redshirt junior Khalil Stinson, who both went down with season-ending injuries early in the season.
Add senior LaVontis Smith (34 receptions, 372 yards, one TD); David Miller (20-245-2) and Jacen Murphy (13-147) and the field looks wider than O’Kelly-Riddick Stadium.
Equally as powerful as the offense is a defense that was No. 1 in FCS in allowing fourth-down conversions and No. 3 in tackles for loss.
The unit got to see one of its own get “the call” when senior defensive end Ryan Smith was picked in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. He had Smith is having an impressive preseason for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“It’s crazy to see somebody you’re playing with at an HBCU get drafted,” defensive lineman Darius Spruill said. “It’s a good feel and motivation for all of us.”
Opposing quarterbacks will see a familiar and dreaded face in cornerback Mike Jones, who returns after going down with a season-ending injury in the third game. Jones was first team all-conference as a sophomore and is equally as deadly as a return specialist.
So will the Eagles put it all together and earn a postseason appearance for the first time as an FCS team?
“Things like that – records and stuff – we try not to think about,” Bell said. “If we go out and do what we’re supposed to do, then that will just fall into place.”
North Carolina Central’s volleyball program hasn’t had a winning season since 2007.
The Eagles played a murderous Division I independent schedule during its five-year probationary period (2007-12) while the university reclassified to DI.
But the struggles have continued since joining the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference as a full member. The team did qualify for the MEAC Tournament in 2014, which only takes the top four teams in each division, but missed out on a return trip last year.
New coach Jody Brown, who joined NCCU in March, is the third coach in four seasons.
If anyone can turn the program, Brown’s pedigree shows he’s just the man to do it. Brown coached at DI Florida Atlantic University for 17 seasons and compiled 225 career wins and three NCAA Tournament appearances.
“Our focus has to be on getting better,” he said. “They are willing to get better and are willing to put in the work, so we need to have the right focus in our coaching as well as our teaching, so they can fulfill their goals.”
Brown recently hired two assistants new to the college coaching game. Recent graduates’ Emma Celentano (UNC-Chapel Hill) and Jonathan Paulk (N.C. State), who look as young as the players, will help mentor a team with just three upperclassmen: two seniors and a junior.
Senior Kelsey Murphy, a two-time, all-conference outside hitter, led the Eagles with 3.2 kills per set and 209 total digs, earning her team most valuable player and a Players Choice award.
Her senior teammate, junior college transfer Casey Curran, was the team leader in assists per set at 7.5.
“The leadership within the team is very strong,” Brown continued. “The seniors and others that got a good bit of playing time last year have bought into the program and the school, so we should be OK.”
Paige Phillips, the lone junior, has averaged 4.1 assists and 1.8 digs per set. The rest of the squad consists of five sophomores, two freshmen and one returning senior walk-on.
Freshmen Kennedy White and Nia Singletary are familiar faces to area fans.
White was a two-team team MVP at Enloe High School, and Singletary was voted to the 2014 and 2015 Greater Neuse All-Conference teams.
Student-athlete of the month
Junior golfer Jordan Bohannon was named the NCCU Student-Athlete of the Month for July.
In May, the Southfield, Michigan, native led the Eagles to fourth place at the PGA Minority Collegiate Championship, the highest finish in program history.
In the classroom, Bohannon has a 3.39 GPA in business administration with a minor in marketing. He is a member of the NCCU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and the Dean’s Undergraduate Advisory Council.