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Editor’s note: This is the second in a series about West Brunswick’s championship football teams in 1991, 1992 and 1993. All three teams were honored on Friday at M.H. Rourk Stadium during Champions Night. This part recounts the 1991 state championship game and the 1992 season.
By Sam Hickman
In the 1991 NCHSAA Class 2A state championship football game, West took the ball on the game’s opening drive and drove it into Thomasville territory but was eventually forced to punt. The Trojans’ attacking defense forced a three-and-out on the Bulldogs’ opening possession and effectively moved the ball down to the opponent’s 30-yard line. Alderson lofted a pass for Grissett near the goal line before it was picked off by Thomasville’s Keith Gaither at the 3.
However, the Trojan “D” once again held strong and forced yet another three-and-out. After almost 15 minutes of play and more than three minutes into the second half, the Bulldogs were unable to get all-everything running back Lamont Pegues into the game. Even more alarming was Thomasville’s inability to move the ball…at all. The 2A West Regional champion, representing of the Central Carolina Conference, had run eight plays on offense, two of which were punts.
However, the Trojans’ inability to capitalize on Thomasville’s stagnant offense caught up to them and the Bulldogs made them pay. After forcing a three-and-out by Alderson and the offense, Thomasville took over first-and-10 from its 40 with 4:37 left in the first half. Quarterback Derrick Merion hit Ron Mock for a 60-yard scoring strike to put his team up 6-0. After the extra point attempt was successful, West trailed by seven late in the second quarter.
Though West had controlled the line of scrimmage and time of possession, it trailed 7-0 and things got worse. Alderson was again intercepted, this time by Vance Simon, and the junior cornerback returned it to the Trojans’ 34. Deshun Cockrane scampered in from 10 yards a few plays later, staking the Bulldogs to a 13-0 advantage. A defensive struggle through a quarter-and-a-half, Thomasville capitalized on West Brunswick’s miscues and enjoyed a two-touchdown lead just before intermission.
West’s Grissett ties record
After limiting West Brunswick to a single third-quarter possession, in which the Trojans failed to cross midfield and ended up punting, Thomasville went to its vaunted running attack to seal the victory. Following a punt, Pegues took the Bulldogs’ first offensive play of the first quarter 44 yards for a score and Brown’s club seized a 21-0 lead.
Alderson led West on its only scoring drive following Pegues’ dash. The march culminated with the Trojan signal-caller finding Grissett in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown pass. A two-point conversion attempt failed and the Trojans trailed by 15 with just over seven minutes remaining in the contest.
Daniel Russ recovered a fumble on the ensuing drive to give West a fighting chance with the ball at the 50 with 6:41 left. However, after driving to the Thomasville 19 and facing a second-and-short situation, Alderson lost a fumble and Simon recovered, sealing the victory for the Bulldogs, their second state championship in four years.
“(Pegues) did us in,” assistant coach Mike Alderson said. “He was great player. We tried to run the ball. They shut us down. Late in the ballgame, we were behind, and that’s when B.A. (Brian Alderson) and Jimmy (Grissett) began to hook up.”
Grissett tied the state championship record of eight catches in a game.
Pegues was named the game’s Most Valuable Player as he notched 149 rushing yards and one score on 25 carries.
Wayne Branch (eight tackles), Adam Johnson (eight tackles), Aaron Butler (nine tackles) and Daniel Russ (seven tackles, two fumble recoveries) led the Trojans defensively.
Lance was contained by a swarming Thomasville defense, yet still produced a solid game with 81 yards on the ground on 17 carries. Butler rushed for 24 yards and hauled in a pair of passes for 22 yards. Steve Holmes (like Butler’s, you’ll want to remember Holmes’ name) ran for a modest 17 yards on three carries.
The Trojans had fallen just short. Making their first appearance in the state title game in school history, West had failed to execute as it had done almost flawlessly throughout the season and a seasoned, powerful, and on this day, opportunistic Thomasville squad jumped on the chance.
The 1991 team had 20 seniors on the state championship roster. Ten players were three-year varsity starters.
“B.A. took it hard,” coach Alderson said of his son about the loss. “All the kids took it hard.”
West finished the season 13-2, but disappointed. Those same mistakes the Trojans made against Thomasville would not doom them again. A year later, it was West Brunswick’s turn to capitalize on another squad’s misfortune.
New head coach in 1992
Jim Brett’s arrival in 1992 brought a lot of changes to the West Brunswick football landscape. There was more “wing” than just the decal on the helmets. Brett, who accepted the head-coaching job after a highly successful stint as the head man at Tarboro High School, implemented the “Wing-T” offense, or a variation of the “scissors.” There’s a good chance you haven’t seen the Wing-T if you just started watching football or you’re under the age of 20. As offense has developed into a more spread-oriented, pass-heavy approach over the course of two decades, the days of the quarterback taking the snap, pivoting around only to fake a handoff and dish the ball to another tailback cutting off the signal-caller’s hip have all but vanished like, well, “three yards and a cloud of dust.”
Generally, if a team had a third-and-5 around the opponent’s 30-yard line, it was clearly a down best-suited for a running play. The thought process was this, “If we don’t get it, we’ll get a couple of yards. We can go for it on fourth down.” The fourth-down call? More times than not, a running play.
After Brett’s arrival and infusion of the Wing-T offense into an up-and-coming, talented group looking to return to Chapel Hill for another shot at a state title was a remarkable blend. For college football fans—and relatively speaking, of course—it was similar to Urban Meyer’s arrival at Florida with the spread offense. His system fit Florida’s personnel perfectly. Much was the case with Brett’s propensity to chew up the clock, wear down opposing squads and dominate second halves as foes were gassed in the game’s waning moments after spending more than 40 minutes not only figuring out who had the ball for West but also trying to tackle him.
As is the case with any change of formation or offensive philosophy in its early stages, the Trojans endured some bumps in the road in 1992. Fortunately, Brett retained David Arrowood (defensive coordinator), Mike Alderson (defensive backs and wide receivers) and Joe Noble (offensive and defensive line) the core of its coaching staff, thus the fundamentals, chief goals and overall strategy were already in place. Brett was not faced with overhauling the entire culture of West Brunswick football. He had to maintain what Seay had established and take it one step farther. This is not to play down what Brett did during his short tenure at West but rather to laud Seay for building a program that was on the cusp of becoming one of North Carolina’s finest teams. Brett was there for a reason—to bring West Brunswick a state championship as he had done at Tarboro in 1984.
Alderson recalled the first meeting with Brett.
“He met with the team and the three coaches on the practice field,” Alderson said. “He said, ‘Boys, when we come out here to practice, we’re going to practice two hours and 15 minutes. After two hours and 15 minutes, I’m taking my tail to the house.’ And he did. We were done.”
“And that included stretches,” Noble said. “The thing that he did was very simple. We had five running plays and two passing plays. And that was it. We didn’t have bells and whistles and all that stuff. It was very simple. We got really good at what we did. If we didn’t run a play right, we ran the play until we got it right.”
Apparently, they practiced those plays a lot.
“The kids really didn’t practice that well,” Noble said. “But when the lights came on, it was different team.”
Joe Hawes, a senior running back and placekicker, kept the team loose with a song.
“It was just about hard work,” Noble said. “And that was their motto. He came up with that little song and they would sing it all the time. To me, that motivated them.”
The Trojans’ 1992 squad was one marked by grit, toughness and character. The team had a certain flare. Whatever “it” has come to mean in the sporting world when describing that athlete or that team, West had “it.” It wasn’t the most dominant display of regular season play the school has ever seen. As a matter of fact, it was far from it.
The 1992 season begins
The Trojans opened the season with a loss to Conway, much to the chagrin of the local faithful, which had witnessed its team squander a chance in December 1991 of attaining high school athletics’ greatest prize. Couple the Conway loss with a 16-6 setback against Whiteville and, for the second consecutive year, a regular-season loss against East Bladen (14-8), and surely fans were ready for Brett to find the “EXIT” signs.
Even through the losses, Brett had one thing many other teams in 1992, every team before it, and every team since has strongly desired—a defense that refused to bend, regardless of circumstance.
“Our defense was so good we could not scrimmage our offense,” Alderson said. “We’d be hurting everybody. We hardly ever ran a full-team scrimmage.”
The West Brunswick defense gave up eight points or fewer in nine of its 14 contests. While the Trojans averaged 280 yards of rushing before the final game, their “D” limited offenses to a paltry 127 yards per game. The unit did not give up 20 points in any single game and had five shutouts. Opponents averaged a measly 7.6 points per contest against West, a number that does not include the six it surrendered in the final game.
The offense was not as explosive as one might think. But it was certainly potent enough. Bryan Flemming and Eric Johnson rotated in a platoon at the quarterback position most of the year. Aaron Butler and Steve Holmes did most of the damage in the Wing-T, as Holmes served as the smaller, electrifying back and backfield mate Aaron Butler brought the “punch” to defenses. Holmes was lightning to Butler’s thunder, and for opponents, it stormed a lot.
Through 13 games, Holmes had 153 rushing attempts for 1,279 yards at an astounding 8.4 yards per clip. Butler carried more of the load, toting the ball on 190 occasions for 1,310 yards. Between the two all-conference backs, they accounted for 29 touchdowns (Holmes had 18, Butler 11).
The playoffs begin
West Brunswick began its playoff run against a familiar foe from Tabor City: South Columbus. The Stallions were overmatched, way overmatched. West rolled to a 47-0 victory in the first round. However, the Trojans’ magical playoff run in 1992 leaves an indelible mark on the annals of West football history not because they won but rather because of how they won and whom they beat.
In the second round, West’s defense again proved too much to overcome as it held Clinton to six points en route to a 14-6 victory, earning a berth into the third round of the playoffs for the second consecutive year.
“Sometime in the third quarter we (knocked out) their quarterback,” Alderson said.
West freshman Kwabena Green was a nose tackle (6-foot-1, 240 pounds), and he had a memorable game, Alderson said.
“They snapped the ball and was getting ready to hand it off,” Alderson said, “and Kwabena took the handoff and took it down the sideline.”
Alderson repeated himself for emphasis: “He took the handoff. He’s a freshman.”
Noble also recalled the play.
Clinton went on to become one of North Carolina’s most successful high school football programs in the 1990s.
In the third round, the Trojans once again squared off against one of the state’s all-time winningest coaches and programs, Dixon Sauls and the Farmville Jaguars. West easily dispatched’ Sauls’ Jags, claiming a 27-point victory over a previously unbeaten squad.
Then came Yogi Hickman’s St. Pauls Bulldogs. Hickman had not lost a conference game at St. Pauls since 1988, his first year at the school, and was a traditional power in the 1A or 2A playoffs throughout his time as a Bulldog. St. Pauls had knocked off Whiteville during the third round of postseason play—and Whiteville was one of three teams that beat West during the regular season.
St. Pauls led West Brunswick 14-13 just before halftime when West lined up for game-tying extra point. Eric Johnson, the placeholder, bobbled the snap, picked up the loose ball and sprinted in for a two-point conversion, giving West a one-point lead before intermission. The Bulldogs never recovered and the Trojans outscored Hickman’s club 24-0 in the second half to knock off their second previously unbeaten team in as many weeks.
Ikard, Maiden formidable
West had once again proved itself to be one of the state’s elite. Now it was time for the true test. Were the Trojans prepared to take the next step to becoming the best team?
It would be no easy task, as NCHSAA Hall of Fame member Tom Brown awaited with his Maiden Blue Devils, a perfect season on the line.
Like Thomasville a year earlier, Maiden entered the contest amidst an eye-popping stretch that saw the Blue Devils running over opponents as fast as they could hand the ball off to one of the nation’s best running backs.
Unlike Thomasville, Maiden had a grown man running the ball. Pegues of Thomasville was a great back, but he wasn’t Antoine Ikard. Ikard finished his career at Maiden with 6,795 rushing yards. At the time, he was the all-time leading rusher in the Tar Heel State. He helped his club to four consecutive playoff wins, in which the team averaged a 24-point margin of victory. The 6-foot-1, 228-pound man-child—shaped more like a refrigerator than a high schooler—had three games of at least 200 yards during the ’92 campaign, including racking up 308 yards in the second round of the playoffs. Maiden won that game 51-27 over West Davidson. During that contest, the entire Blue Devils’ squad amassed 522 rushing yards.
Ikard averaged more than 23 carries per game during his senior season and chewed up almost 160 yards per tilt. He was so effective that his coach all but eradicated the pass from the playbook. Maiden had not attempted 30 passes all season. Ikard was later named the 1992 North Carolina Associated Press Player of the Year, an honor he shared with Burlington Cummings quarterback Ernest Tinnin. To this day, Ikard ranks fourth all-time in the state with 38 career games of at least 100 rushing yards. He also stands in a tie for second place with 14 games of at least 100 rushing yards in a single-season. He would own the record, but sat out the second game of the campaign with a lingering injury.
Other than the game Ikard was sidelined, the West Brunswick defense performed much better against the star running back than any of Maiden’s previous opponents.
Mistakes make the difference
The Trojans wasted little time in jumping ahead of the Blue Devils, as Maiden botched a snap on a punt attempt early in the game, setting up West with a first-and-10 on the 11-yard line. Holmes scampered in two plays later for the contest’s first touchdown and Joe Hawes added the extra point for a 7-0 lead.
The Trojans’ ball-hawking defense prevented Maiden from tying the game on several occasions. Sophomore James Morgan picked off a pass as the Blue Devils drove for the potential game-tying or go-ahead score near the West Brunswick goal line. Maiden had three drives that ended in West territory as it trailed by seven for most of the game. Butler made a pair of critical fourth-down stops during the fourth quarter, one that held Ikard 1 yard short of a first down at the Trojans’ 6.
An opportunistic West squad capitalized on another turnover—just as Thomasville had done a year earlier in handing the Trojans a defeat—as Butler blocked a punt attempt and the Green and Gold took over first-and-10 at the Maiden 27. Holmes added his second touchdown of the game seven plays later and Hawes connected on the point-after-attempt. West led 14-0 and was four minutes, four seconds away from bringing home the school’s first state championship.
The Blue Devils threatened with a late touchdown, but Wayne Branch recovered an onside kick attempt to give the Trojans what they had long waited for: a coveted state championship.
West held Ikard to 107 yards, which was over 30 yards fewer than his season average, on 28 carries while limiting the brawny back to a 12-yard rush as his game-high.
“Thank heavens we had a little safety, Marty Earwood, that weighed (130) pounds and had 11 solo tackles on Antoine Ikard,” Noble said. “(Ikard) did his share of getting through the line, but Marty took care of him.”
The Trojans mustered just 138 yards of total offense to Maiden’s 207 and the Blue Devils led the boys from Shallotte in nearly every statistical category except for the most important. West won, 14-6.
Holmes (13 rushes, 76 yards, two touchdowns) was awarded the game’s Offensive MVP while Butler (six tackles, two tackles for loss, blocked punt) earned the hardware on the defensive side of the ball.
The victory marked Jim Brett’s second state championship victory.
During interviews with three coaches on the 1992 staff, each used the adjective, “special,” to describe their group. Special, indeed.
The win might have come as a surprise to many experts at the time, yet this cast of young men, one year removed from postseason heartbreak, would not be denied.
The Trojans were poised for a repeat in 1993. However, realignment would prove itself a difficult obstacle to overcome if West was to move up into the 3A ranks and capture its second championship in as many years.
Next edition: The 1993 season.