Photos and article from Kai Jones
The holidays can be a time for introspection and looking back, but Princeton continued to look forward on Black Friday.
The Bulldogs (13-0) continued their march towards a N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A championship with a 45-28 win over the defending 2AA East Regional champions, St. Pauls.
Princeton has spent the last four weeks exercising playoff demons. This is the fourth year in a row the Bulldogs have finished the regular season with one or fewer losses, but just the first time getting past the second round under head coach Travis Gaster.
Senior quarterback Paul Edens went as far as to call the Bulldogs’ playoff troubles a ‘curse.’ Gaster and the players say part of the success has been the change in their mindset.
“We focus on the now,” Gaster said. “We focus on what we can control. You can’t control what happened — that’s over and done with. If you dwell on the bad stuff, you’ll dwell on the good stuff, and you fall asleep and get hit in the mouth.”
“That’s what we’ve done all year long — not really beat ourselves up about mistakes,” Gaster added.
Despite a three-score final, Princeton took one of St. Paul’s (11-1) best shots, as they trailed for the majority of the first half. St. Paul’s struck first with a Mikail Breeden 8-yard pass to KJ Jones to take an 8-0 lead in the first quarter.
Edens responded with a three-yard touchdown in the second quarter with 8:23 left. The two-point conversion was no good and Princeton trailed 8-6. St. Paul’s made it a two-score game on the next play from scrimmage as Kemarion Baldwin stormed in from 51 yards out. Baldwin ran in the conversion for a 16-6 lead over Princeton.
With five minutes left in the first half, Edens stumbled out the pack into a 54-yard run to set the Bulldogs up with first and goal from the one-yard line. Christian Perris carried it in on the next play. McKinley Uzzell put the extra point in to make it 16-13 with four minutes left.
Baldwin responded with a three-yard touchdown with 29 seconds left. St. Pauls led 22-13. Javier Ortiz picked off Edens six seconds before halftime to keep it at 22-13.
Gaster said he challenged his defense to make stops and his offense to not get stopped on fourth down — which happened twice in the first half. The Bulldogs got the ball to start the second half, which doesn’t usually happen so they viewed it as an opportunity to start a comeback.
Perris carried the ball into the end zone with 9:31 left in the third quarter to make it 22-21. Baldwin responded with a 16-yard run for a touchdown just two minutes later. Princeton stuffed the Baldwin two-point conversion. St. Pauls did not score again.
Edens punched in a five-yard touchdown two minutes later. Uzzell’s kick tied the game at 28 with 5:47 left.
St. Paul’s punted on the next drive. Princeton ended the third quarter with a 4th and 4 from the six-yard line. The Bulldogs tried to get St. Paul’s to jump offside but couldn’t so they called timeout and kicked a 25-yard field goal.
Gaster said after the game, having the option to kick a field goal with Uzzell has been huge for the team as the Bulldogs never had that option in the past.
On the next play from scrimmage, Baldwin burst out the pack for 68 yards and touchdown, but a penalty knocked it off the board. Two plays later, Baldwin fumbled and Princeton recovered on the 36-yard line. Brandon Turner punched it in four plays later with 9:40 left.
St. Pauls drive it down to the red zone before it was picked off by Peyton Mitchell. Mitchell returned it to the 48-yard line with 8:38 to go. Perris scored from 11-yards out with 1:43 left to make it 45-28.
Playing without running back Jaydon Brooks for the second straight game, the Bulldogs, once again, had no problems running the football. Perris finished the game with 247 yards and three touchdowns on 34 carries, while Edens carried the ball 14 times for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Turner finished the game with 84 yards rushing and one touchdown.
Princeton will host Wallace Rose Hill (12-2) with the chance to go to the state championship game on the line next Friday night.