Because of injuries to key players and some painful loses early, Hopewell senior Denzel Heath said he didn't have much hope for the Titans' football season to end well.
In the third game, Hopewell lost 48-14 to Ardrey Kell and lost starting defensive tackles Tevin Stevenson (6-foot-3, 275 pounds) and Anthony Orr (6-3, 315) to knee injuries.
The Titans graduated more than 30 seniors last season. And then without their imposing defensive linemen to anchor the line, Hopewell was forced to insert smaller, less experienced players.
Hopewell went 2-4 without Orr and Stevenson and lost three straight in October. For Heath, a linebacker who doubles as a running back, playing defense got much harder.
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"Those guys lock up two holes," Heath said. "Without them, we had people just running the ball on us. As a linebacker, I saw guards pulling and double-teams all the time. It was frustrating. I couldn't make any plays."
Stevenson and Orr returned before the Titans' game against rival North Mecklenburg on Oct. 28, needing to win to make the 4A playoffs.
After allowing an average of 31 points without the injured linemen, Hopewell rebounded with them, beating North Meck 33-6 to secure the playoffs' 16th and final seed.
Last week the Titans won on the road, upsetting No. 4 seed Skyland Roberson 14-9.
Tonight at 7:30, Heath and Hopewell (5-6) will play at Sun Valley (6-5) for a state quarterfinal berth.
"When (Stevenson and Orr) came back, I could run free," said Heath, whose 15-year-old brother, Dominique, also plays linebacker for the Titans . "Now, when I blitz, or try to make tackles (in the center of the field), there's nobody blocking me. It's changed the team a lot and fired up the defense."
It's also made Heath tougher to stop.
At 5-11 and 195 pounds, he runs the 40-yard dash in less than 4.5 seconds. First-year coach David Johnson said Heath has scholarship offers from Appalachian State, Hampton and Western Carolina. Indiana is also interested. Heath said some schools that have offered or are still recruiting him want him to play linebacker. He has more than 100 tackles this season.
Others like him at running back. Heath has rushed for more than 1,600 yards - with his play on offense and defense earning him a berth in next month's Shrine Bowl, an annual all-star game that pits the top public school seniors from North and South Carolina.
"He's as good as advertised," Hopewell coach Johnson said.
Before arriving at Hopewell this season, Johnson was offensive coordinator at Berry, where he coached Germone Hopper, a running back/receiver ranked among the nation's top 100 players. Hopper has committed to Clemson.
"He reminds me a lot of the Hopper kid," Johnson said of Heath. "He can really take over a game."
Johnson flashes back to Hopewell's 24-23 victory against Hough on Sept. 23.
Johnson said Hough enjoyed a late lead. Heath stripped a Hough player of the ball to give his team a crucial possession. On the next play, Heath took a screen pass and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown run that won the game.
"Teams have to really have a game plan to stop him on both sides of the ball," Johnson said. "You just can't let him break one. He broke one last week against Roberson. He took a draw play 75 yards for a touchdown. He's just an impact player."
Heath also plays basketball and runs track at Hopewell . He said he enjoys how sports pushes him to do well on the field and in the classroom.
And, as he gets set for tonight's game, football is fun again, he said.
"The playoffs are a whole new start," he said. "It's win or go home."