Smithfield-Selma’s football team was asked two simple questions Friday night at halftime by their head coach David Lawhon.
“Do you believe you can score 21 points?”
“Yes sir,” came the Spartans’ collective answer.
“Do you think you can hold South Johnston scoreless?”
“Yes sir,” came their response again.
“Then they just out and did just that,” Lawhon recalled a day after the Spartans rallied from a 21-0 halftime deficit Friday to top rival South Johnston 22-21, ending the state’s longest losing streak at 40 games.
The celebration and emotional postgame huddle that ensued was something most of SSS’s players have never experienced. Few of them have been part of a win in football during their high school careers.
“I’m just so proud and happy, especially for the seniors,” Lawhon said. “Just them getting to have this experience, this feeling after a game after they’ve worked so hard.
“It was just a tremendous feeling to be a part of and to watch them celebrate the experience of winning.”
A timely fumble recovery and the 33-yard touchdown connection on fourth-and-16 will be some of the longer-lasting memories for SSS. It also took a consistent and driven defensive effort to keep South Johnston out of the end zone in the second half.
Before that, Smithfield-Selma senior quarterback Chris Samuels converted a key third down on the Spartans’ second touchdown drive of the second half.
A.J. Cannon had slipped on a cut on his pass route but Samuels connected with his receiver anyway, putting the ball right on the prone Cannon’s chest to convert the first down and keep the drive alive.
The Spartans made a small defensive adjustment for the second half, widening out their linebackers to better protect the edge from runs. Cannon, a sophomore, and freshman Jimmy Moore led the SSS linebacker group which benefited from the big push created by junior defensive tackle John Lucas.
“He became a beast at defensive tackle,” Lawhon said. “He really turned it on all night and kept South Johnston from doing much up the middle of the field. So once we shielded the edge a little better with the linebacker adjustment, we were in good shape.”
On the other side of the ball, the Smithfield-Selma offensive line played much better in the second half, beginning with a yardage-churning drive to open the third quarter that helped SSS cut the lead to 21-8.
“The biggest thing was they started believing,” Lawhon said. “It was just a mentality change as much as anything else. Guys like Leroy Hill just had a dominating presence all of a sudden.”