The Edenton Holmes football team has been at the doorstep of a state championship for the past three seasons. Again, the Aces find themselves here, close to another chance. Tarboro is here, too. Close again.
Here is the East regional final of the Class 1-AA playoffs, where Tarboro will host Edenton Holmes at 7:30 p.m. on Friday with a state championship game berth on the line.
The top-seeded Vikings (13-0) made it here with two shutout wins after a first-round bye. The No. 2 Aces won two games handily after their opening-round bye by finals of 49-7 and 61-20. The teams will meet in the regional final for the third consecutive season, an inevitable matchup made possible by the 2017 realignment.
Since coach Paul Hoggard took over at Edenton Holmes in 2015, the Aces have been a mainstay in December football games.
After a 6-6 first season, they made the 2-A championship game in 2016 where they lost to Reidsville. That was the final year they competed in 2-A. And when the Aces moved to 1-A ahead of the 2017 season, Tarboro coach Jeff Craddock took notice.
“When Edenton moved to 1-A I looked at them as a team that we would end up meeting in the eastern finals every year,” Craddock said. “And that’s more of a credit to them, with what kind of players and coaches they have there.”
Craddock’s prediction rang true, and for the third consecutive season the East will be won by either Tarboro or Edenton Holmes.
The Vikings haven’t been defeated yet. Tarboro has been the colossus standing in the way. The gatekeeper of 1-AA football.
The pressures that come with chasing a third state title in as many seasons isn’t ignored by the Vikings. Defensive lineman Ja’viyes Massenburg said during practice this week that the team is reminded of this at the start of each season.
“We take after Craddock who says that everyone who schedules Tarboro, we’ll be the one game circled,” Massenburg said. “We know that no matter what team is facing us in the playoffs they are having a good year, so we ready for it.”
All of those circles has amounted to zero Tarboro losses in recent seasons. In fact, the Vikings haven’t lost since 2016 and are riding a 43-game winning streak. It is the fourth-longest active streak in the country, and the longest by 19 games in the state.
Tarboro has earned those wins with power running on offense and stout defensive performances. And while the formula has worked for the Vikings, adding new plays or wrinkles to the system is always a possibility. Especially in the playoffs.
Craddock said that chunks of practice time has been spent installing new plays, though fans of the Vikings probably haven’t noticed the product of that time because the team hasn’t unveiled much on Friday nights.
“We certainly want to add wrinkles, but we’re always going to play our style of football,” Craddock said. “We have some plays that we can use if we need them. ... But we don’t necessarily want to put something on film just to do it.”
The Vikings haven’t had many opportunities to be creative during these playoffs, either. Tarboro ran just 23 offensive plays in a 64-0 win over Hobbton in the second round. That means, because of a first-round bye, Tarboro, in a span of 21 days, ran just 23 offensive plays before the third round.
Seven different players combined for eight touchdowns against Hobbton, while North Rowan allowed seven touchdowns to four different players. Tarboro had no need to shift from their base offense. It worked.
Against the Aces, however, familiarity might be the reason the Vikings become inventive. Tarboro track star and quarterback Kimani McDaniels could line up in a new spot, or maybe one of the eight rushers with at least 100 yards takes on a new role.
The defense, too, can add wrinkles. Linebacker and Coastal Plains defensive player of the year Clay Craddock said that the Vikings love to show different pre-snap looks, as well as moving players around the field.
“Especially when you get deeper into the playoffs you have to put stuff in,” the team’s leading tackler said. “Because good offenses can pick apart certain defenses, so you want to keep them on edge. I played outside linebacker, middle linebacker, and really all sorts of different positions. We move guys all over and it’s important to see how offenses react to that.”
Massenburg, for instance, said that he will switch from left end to right end, sometimes after each play if teams try to run away from his side.
“Teams have been putting more blockers on me or they will run away from me,” said Massenburg, who has a team-high four sacks. “So I’ll swap back and forth to see if I can get them to run at me.”
The winner of Friday’s game will play either No. 1 East Surry — the state runner-up to Tarboro last season — or No. 2 Mitchell.