Photo: Westbrook Christian’s Karmichael Cattling runs past a pair of North Sand Mountain defenders during the Warriors’ 35-13 loss in the second round of the Class 2A state football playoffs last Friday (Nov. 15) in Higdon. (Jason Bowen/Jackson County Sentinel)
By Jason Bowen, Jackson County Sentinel
North Sand Mountain advanced to the state football quarterfinals for the first time in school history thanks to a 35-13 Class 2A second-round playoff victory over visiting Westbrook Christian last Friday (Nov. 15) in Higdon.
The Bison (9-3) travel to No. 3-ranked Collinsville (11-1) in the Class 2A quarterfinals this Friday (Nov. 22). The Thundering Herd lost 54-28 at Collinsville, a 21-14 winner at No. 2 Ohatchee on Friday, on Sept. 6. The NSM-Collinsville winner advances to the Class 2A semifinals against either No. 1 Fyffe or No. 4 Red Bay.
“[North Sand Mountain] had been throwing [the ball] about 30 times a game, and they didn’t throw it much [on Friday],” said Westbrook head coach Drew Noles. “So we came into the game prepared to stop the pass, and we just never really stopped the run. You’ve got to take your hat off to [NSM].”
After qualifying for the playoffs only twice in its first 46 seasons, NSM has now made the postseason eight of the past nine years. Friday’s win was the program’s first second-round victory in four tries, a breakthrough fueled not by its typical passing attack but by a ground game that ran for 388 yards and defense that head coach Keith Kirby said has put together its best performances the past two weeks.
Damon Gentle finished with a career-high 213 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries, while Fernando Luna had 85 yards on 14 carries. Cade McBryar had 43 yards on two carries and Landon Green had 37 yards and one touchdown on nine carries. Green was 3-of-10 passing for 38 yards and one score.
Meanwhile, Westbrook Christian (8-4) was held to only 208 total yards and just 117 yards rushing. The Warriors committed two turnovers – an interception by NSM’s Derek Bearden and a fumble recovered by Gentle.
Green’s 4-yard touchdown run and his 27-yard touchdown pass to Jayden Culpepper – Green chased down as high snap and found the senior for the score – and the first of Tyler Scott’s five PATs gave the Bison a 14-0 second-quarter lead.
Will Noles’ 4-yard touchdown run cut the deficit to 14-7 for Westbrook. The scoring drive was kept alive by Noles finding Joe Tucker for a long gain on a fake punt.
NSM turned the ball over on downs on its next possession, the second time during the first half that the Bison failed to score when driving inside the Westbrook 10-yard line. Derek Graham recovered a NSM fumble at the goal line on the game’s first possession.
The missed opportunities did not hurt the Bison, who put the game away with a three-touchdown fourth quarter.
“We had the ball three times [in the third quarter] with a chance to tie, and we stalled out each time,” said Drew Noles. “[NSM] did a great job of finding some things that worked and stuck with them, and we just never were able to set the edge on the defensive side.”
Gentle’s 5-yard touchdown run capped a 12-play, 80-yard drive that gave NSM a 21-7 lead with 10:57 remaining. Gentle then scored on touchdown runs of 1 and 55 yards during the three minutes to seal it for the hosts.
Westbrook got a short touchdown run from Karmichael Cattling late in the fourth quarter.
For the Warriors, Karmichael Cattling rushed 16 times for 78 yards. Wil Noles completed nine if 15 passes for 70 yards. Joe Tucker had five receptions for 65 yards. Bryce Wood and Jai’Shawm Cattling each had eight tackles, while Carson Wiggins had five. Derrick Graham and John Harvey both had a sack.
Drew Noles, who has been a high school head football coach since 2000, noted that the 2019 season was his most enjoyable as a coach.
“Not to take anything away for the other teams I’ve coached, but this was just a great group to be around. We had zero discipline problems all year, and everybody was at practice every day. Everybody was on the same page, and it was a whole lot of fun. This [season] was definitely something to grow on, and with the character of these kids, we’re going to have a great offseason. We knew that the things we accomplished this year would make us better in the future. Our goal in the offseason is to start next season like we finished this season.”
Messenger Publisher/Editor Chris McCarthy contributed to this article.