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Tarboro football's seniors turning in program's top season

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Tarboro's Devonta Davis returns a punt Friday, Dec. 1, 2017 during the game against Edenton Holmes in the NCHSAA 1-AA East Regional final at Tarboro High School.

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By PATRICK MASON
Sports Writer

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Tae Randolph noticed the size of his opponents first. Then, the Tarboro High quarterback saw beards poking through chin straps.

“My first varsity game, it was crazy,” Randolph said. “The game was so much faster than what I was used to. Guys were bigger and so much faster. It was a lot to take in. I’m used to playing against guys with no facial hair, and then you see guys coming at you with full beards.”

Randolph was a sophomore during the 2015 season when he was pulled up to the varsity squad and asked to take over the offense.

Before that 2015 high school football season, Tarboro coach Jeff Craddock knew he would have to get creative.

The Vikings senior class was in shambles. Some players transferred to other schools, while other became ineligible due to poor grades or decision-making. That left a deep gash on the roster. Craddock’s solution was to promote 13 players from the JV squad to help bolster the team’s depth, as well as fill starting roles.

Without the addition of those players, the Vikings wouldn’t have had enough bodies on either side of the ball to scrimmage in practice. The roster was at 16 players, making each game a test of endurance, iron men playing both sides of the ball.

“Absolutely we needed those guys,” Craddock said. “ I told them to be ready to work, because we needed them in the weight room right away. Yesterday, even.”

“We thought it was going to be a down or rebuilding season,” Randolph said, “But we wanted to show everyone that even though we’re sophomores we can play ball too. We only lost 2 games. Some people were surprised, but not us.”

That 2015 team went 12-2 and advanced to the third round of the playoffs before losing to James Kenan. The next season, as juniors in 2016, the team went 12-3 and advanced to the regional final where it lost.

Now, on a damp Wednesday this week, that group of sophomores, now seniors, ran through their final practice in pads while preparing to play their final high school game on the state’s biggest stage.

No. 1 Tarboro (14-0) is playing for the program’s fifth state championship against the West’s top seed in Mount Airy. A look back at that 2015 season proved that that this group had all the talent to compete.

They overcame a pair of late-round playoff losses in consecutive seasons to make it here with a chance at a perfect season for the first time since 2010. And all continue to play important roles on this team.

Randolph has been running the offense ever since his sophomore year. Running back Deontae Williams is in his third varsity season, along with defensive back Devonta Davis, linebacker Phillip Willoughby, offensive linemen Ken Belcher, Taquan Hutcherson and Nijee Chandler.

Joseph Lyons, a linebacker and tight end, and two-way player Jacoby Ward add a speed element to the defense that’s unparalleled at this level. Linemen Shane Keel and Jacob Sessoms have also been here since 2015.

The jump in skill level was a wakeup call for most.

“Freshman year I got to practice with varsity in the playoffs,” Belcher said. “But we were just practice dummies. “The next year we were low on depth and they had no choice but to pull us up.

“I started right away and I remember guys were killing me. They had all this speed and they were pushing me around. The coaches taught me to stay low, the lowest man wins. Soon, we got used to it.”

Davis’ experience was similar. He expected to play one more season on JV, but the coaches told him after a practice to be prepared to suit up. He started at cornerback right away, and in his first game caught an interception that was later called back.

“They threw me in the fire,” Davis said. “They counted on me like I was a star who did this before. But ever since that day I loved varsity football and the expectations put on me.”

Willoughby spent the first five games on JV before he got his call. Now the defensive play-caller, Willoughby was asked to do just that as a sophomore with no varsity experience.

Craddock said he knew the players he promoted would be able to handle the job. It was just a matter of those players believing as well.

“I remember we had a whole lot of growing up to do in a short period,” Willoughby said. “Usually the normal path is to play two years on JV. But that didn't happen with a lot of us. And for me, they threw all that stuff at me and expected me to do it well. You wanted to stay up here so you had to get it down.”

Those players are the driving force of the most dominant defense in program history. The Vikings are allowing just 4.21 points per game, and have enjoyed a running clock in each of their three playoff wins.

The offense is just as devastating.

Williams, a key part of a devastating three-headed rushing attack that is helping the offense average more than 52 points per game, remembers what it was like when he was thrust into the varsity lineup. He was 140 pounds and not sure if he fit in.

It wasn't until Week 7 where he felt like he belonged. Williams ran for almost 200 yards in a win over South Creek, and with those yards came a confidence that hasn't left.

“I remember thinking how big some of these guys were that I was running into,” Williams said. “They were big and strong, and I was little. But after that game I knew I belonged up here.”

Now, Williams is 180 pounds and is tied for the team lead in touchdowns with 17 to go with 834 rushing yards.

As for Randolph, he looks back at his first year as the start of something he and his teammates have talked about since middle school. This group always wanted to be part of a state championship, and to back that talk up with a berth in the title game is just how they planned it.

“I had to lead the team at a young age,” Randolph said. “It was an odd mix of the older guys looking up to me because I’m the quarterback, even though I was looking up to them because I was just trying to keep my head above water.”

Tarboro is swimming just fine, now.

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