By RYAN HERMAN
PUMPKIN CENTER –– North Lincoln head coach David Maness isn’t one for moral victories, but even he was pleased with the way his team hung around with Lake Norman on Friday.
The Knights couldn’t stop Wildcats quarterback Josh Ladowski, who accounted for 454 total yards and four touchdowns, but they did enough to frustrate the league’s top offense and keep it respectable in a 34-14 win for Lake Norman.
North Lincoln answered the Wildcats’ first two scores in a stalemate first quarter, and had a chance to tie going into halftime.
But the Knights (3-6, 1-4 North Piedmont 3A/4A) came up a yard short against a 4A school with one of the best offenses around.
“We get the ball into the end zone right down there before halftime, you never know what might have been,” Maness said. “Our kids played hard. We’re looking at it as they’ve got 2,000 students, and we’ve got 988. That’s a little bit of a mismatch there.”
Lake Norman (7-2, 5-0) may have a larger enrollment, but there was really only one player North Lincoln couldn’t contain.
Ladowski, a junior committed to North Carolina for baseball, completed 14 of 25 passes for 227 yards and two scores, and ran for 227 yards and two scores on 27 carries.
He connected with Corey Joyner on a 32-yard TD pass less than 2 minutes in, then scored on a 5-yard run with 4:38 to play in the first quarter to go up 14-7.
North Lincoln’s Trey Freeman returned the ensuing kickoff 90 yards to tie, and the 14-14 score stood until Ladowski reached paydirt from the Knights 11 with 2:24 left in the half.
Joyner scored on a 20-yard run at the 7:17 mark of the third, and Joyner caught his second TD reception on an 11-yard pass from Ladowski with 1:47 to play.
The Wildcats may have won by three scores, but none of their TDs came easy.
“We just didn’t execute (when we needed) and we should have,” Ladowski said. “You can’t take anyone lightly. You can’t just think that you can win.”
In usual fashion, it took Lake Norman five plays to strike first, setting up the here-comes-the-blowout aura that surrounded North Lincoln’s homecoming. Only it never happened.
The Knights answered immediately, moving the ball on the ground with ease on their first drive to tie the game. The drive took 11 plays and went 72 yards, ending with a 4-yard run by J-Mo Thompson.
The Wildcats countered with Ladowski’s 5-yard run, then Freeman countered with a kickoff return for a 14-14 game with 4:21 left in the first quarter.
North Lincoln never saw the end zone again, but defensively it never gave up.
“We thought all week long that we could move the football. We felt like if we could keep the ball from them a little bit, get a stop or two along the way maybe, and get a turnover or two … then we could frustrate them a little bit and I think we did,” Maness said.
After falling behind 21-7, the Knights put together another solid drive behind Freeman, who entered at quarterback after starter Chase Caldwell was removed after suffering a stinger, and moved the ball 64 yards in less than 2 minutes.
Freeman completed two passes on the drive, and Richard Jackson had a 21-yard run as North Lincoln had second-and-2 from the Lake Norman 7 with just seconds remaining.
Freeman scurried around the corner, but was tackled at the 1 as time expired.
It never reached the red zone again.
“The effort was good. The only thing that disappoints me is that we’ve still got to learn to not be our worse enemies,” Maness said.
North Lincoln’s defense didn’t force any turnovers, and didn’t keep the Warriors from moving up and down the field. But it did make Lake Norman take more snaps than usual, holding it to under 42 points for the first time since it fell 51-29 against Cornelius Hough.
“We’re in a tough situation and we’re fighting as hard as we can,” Maness said.
Thanks to the forfeited win gained last week from East Lincoln, North Lincoln needs just one more to become playoff eligible.
Its last two games come against 3A teams who have struggled –– at Statesville and against West Iredell –– and are a combined 4-14 and Maness feels the Knights can win at least one of them.
They’re shooting for both.
“Both teams have struggled, especially on defense. I feel like it’s games where we can move the ball and go play and do the best we can,” he said. “Our kids keep fighting, and that’s all we can ask them to do.”