This year’s NCHSAA state championship football games, which will be played on Saturday at four college venues across North Carolina will look a lot like those played a year ago.
Of the 16 remaining teams in the eight classifications, nine also played for titles in 2018, with six — Tarboro, Reidsville, Weddington, Shelby, Charlotte Catholic and East Forsyth — attempting to defend their championships.
Two of this year’s games will be rematches. But not all of the state finals will feature familiar foes.
At the other end of the spectrum are two Raleigh area teams, Leesville Road and Cardinal Gibbons, that will be making their first appearances in a state final. And then there’s Salisbury, which has advanced to the 2AA championship game as an unlikely seventh seed.
Here’s a closer look at all eight of the state title matchups:
4A: Cardinal Gibbons (12-2) vs. East Forsyth (12-2)
Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, 11 a.m.
Gibbons avenged last year’s second-round loss to Scotland to beat the Scots 22-15 on Friday and earn the first title shot in school history. The Crusaders are led by the passing of Andrew Harvey and the running of Jack Grazen, who averages 142 rushing yards per game.
While Gibbons features a balanced offense, East Forsyth does most of its damage on the ground, churning out 303 yards per game. The Eagles also have a flair for the dramatic. Not only did they come from behind in the fourth quarter to beat Scotland in last year’s championship game, but they also held on for a 21-20 win against top-seeded Grimsley in the West Region final last week, stopping a potential game-winning two-point conversion try with just under two minutes remaining.
4AA: Leesville Road (13-0) vs. Charlotte Vance (12-2)
Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, 3 p.m.
Leesville Road has already cleared one major hurdle by upsetting three-time defending state champion Wake Forest in Friday’s East Region final. The Pride did that impressively, knocking off the Cougars 28-10 behind the running of Tiawan Moore and the passing of Trey Baker.
Vance is also coming off an impressive region championship victory as it looks to win the state title that eluded it a year ago. The Cougars outscored Richmond 28-0 in the second half to pull away for a 38-7 victory that saw quarterback Austin Greer throw for two touchdowns and running back Stefon Thompson rush for two others. Greer leads a prolific passing attack that averages 334.5 yards per game.
3A: Southern Nash (15-0) vs. Charlotte Catholic (11-3)
Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh, 3 p.m.
No one had to work harder to get to a state final this year than Charlotte Catholic. The Cougars had to survive a seven-overtime marathon against Kings Mountain to pull out a 56-49 victory in the West Region final to advance to Saturday’s meeting with Southern Nash.
Leading rusher Paul Neel scored on a 1-yard run on the seventh extra possession, then Catholic’s typically stout defense took over — getting an interception from Jacob Schachte off a deflection to end the longest game in state playoff history.
On the other side of the bracket, Southern Nash also had sweat out some nervous moments before pulling out a 32-29 victory against Eastern Alamance in a game that saw star running back Quinton Cooley score three touchdowns. Cooley leads a primarily ground-oriented Firebirds offense by averaging 202.8 yards on the ground.
3AA: Lee County (15-0) vs. Weddington (15-0)
Carter-Finley Stadium, Raleigh 7 p.m.
This promises to be one of Saturday’s best matchups, with defending champion Weddington facing off against unbeaten Lee County. Both teams come into the game off convincing regional final victories, with the Warriors taking down Watauga 49-14 and the Yellow Jackets eliminating New Hanover 34-9.
Weddington is led by five-star junior running back Will Shipley, the Gatorade N.C. Player of the Year who starred in his team’s 2018 title victory and rushed for 169 in last week’s win. Lee County features a balanced offense that averages 241.6 yards on the ground, mainly on the running of A.J. Boulware, and 152.1 yards through the arm of quarterback Colin Johnson.
2A: Northeastern (12-3) vs. Reidsville (14-1)
BB&T Field, Winston-Salem, 3 p.m.
This is a rematch of the 2018 championship game, won 31-28 by Reidsville for its third consecutive state title. The Rams look strong again after crushing West Stokes 63-13 in last week’s West Region final. Lionel Long ran for 262 yards and five touchdowns in that game while quarterback Kyle Pinnix threw for three more scores to highlight an offense that averages 51.4 points per game.
The Eagles from Elizabeth City will try to slow Reidsville with a defense led by safety Jiheem Hooper, who has amassed 106 tackles and a pair of interceptions this season. Offensively, quarterback DeAndre Proctor pulls the trigger on an attack that administered a 23-8 beating on Clinton in last Friday’s East Region final.
2AA: Salisbury (12-3) vs. Shelby (13-1)
BB&T Field, Winston-Salem, 11 a.m.
Shelby is the defending state champion and a heavy favorite against a Salisbury team that has defied all expectations to get this far.
Salisbury’s success has been built around a physical defense that limited Randleman to just 78 total yards (26 on the ground) in the West Region final. Offensively, the Hornets rely on a gritty running attack that saw Mike McLean run for 184 yards and both touchdowns in Friday’s victory.
Shelby, meanwhile, averages nearly 250 yards per game through the air behind the passing of Isaiah Bess. A Golden Lions offense that averages 46 points per game will present a stiff challenge to that Salisbury defense.
1A: Northampton Co. (11-3) vs. Robbinsville (14-0)
Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, 3 p.m.
Robbinsville is making its 16th championship appearance and seeking its first title since 2014. The Black Knights advanced to the final with a 28-14 win against Thomas Jefferson Classical Academy in a game that saw leading rusher Rylee Anderson gain 208 yards and score three touchdowns on the ground. The Robbinsville defense also chipped in by intercepting four passes.
It probably won’t get the opportunity to pick off that many passes against a Northampton team that stays primarily on the ground. Running back Na’Jae Newsome leads a stable of backs at 112.3 yards per game. But he’s hardly the Jaguars’ only offensive weapon. Three other backs have gained more than 800 yards rushing this season.
1AA: Tarboro (14-0) vs. East Surry (14-0)
Wallace Wade Stadium, Durham, 7 p.m.
In another state championship rematch between two undefeated teams, East Surry will be looking to make a better showing than it did in a 50-10 loss to three-time defending champion Tarboro in 2018.
The Cardinals advanced to this year’s final by beating Mitchell 35-28 on Friday while the Vikings — who are riding a 44-game winning streak that is the fourth-longest in the nation — easily defeated John A. Holmes 35-6.
The matchup is a classic contrast of styles with East Surry relying on the passing of quarterback Jefferson Boaz, who averages 328.4 yards per game through the air, while Tarboro averages 286.7 yards on the ground with Khalil Stanton leading the way.