In The Record’s latest edition of The Gridiron Jury, all six jurors unanimously picked Triton to beat Western Harnett. And who could blame them? It had been 719 days since the Eagles had won a game, back when Jason Furrie was head coach. To make the pick even more convincing, Triton had gone 11-1 in the last 12 meetings against Western, outscoring the Eagles by an average margin of 20.5 points per game.
But Western shocked the experts and spoiled Triton’s homecoming night with a 22-14 upset. It’s the first of what head coach Blake Culbertson hopes to be many wins for his team.
“It feels good, man, I’m just happy for these kids,” an emotional Culbertson said. “They work hard all the time, and for them to finally win one, it means a lot.”
The game started off quiet, but Western quarterback Tristin Ung made some noise at the end the first quarter with a 30-yard pass to Tyrese Jones. That put the Eagles at Triton’s 29 to start the second quarter. Ung capped off the drive with a 16-yard hookup to Kentarius Thompson for a touchdown. Dillon Smith made the PAT to give Western a 7-0 lead.
Triton answered two possessions later with a 76-yard touchdown drive. Austin Riewestahl punched it in with an aggressive run from 11 yards and Paul Wells hit the extra point to tie the game with 2:57 to go in the half.
The Hawks defense forced a punt to get the ball back with just under two minutes. That’s when Malihk Giles provided some instant offense, ripping off an explosive 62-yard run all the way to the endzone on the first play of the drive and giving Triton the lead 14-7.
The late score seemed to give Triton all of the momentum going into the second half, but Western’s Tamarius Davis had other plans. Davis took the kickoff 47 yards all the way down to the Triton 23. A few plays later, Davis hauled in a touchdown catch from eight yards out to cut the deficit to 14-13.
“Tamarius is a good football player,” Culbertson said. “Good players make plays when you need them, and he stepped up and made a play right there.”
Triton received the ball to start the second half, but they didn’t keep it for long. Riewestahl tried to bust another run up the middle but senior safety Chris Smith picked his pocket and took the ball to the house to make it 19-14 just 50 seconds into the half.
“We just didn’t carry over the momentum we had,” Triton head coach Ben Penny said. “We didn’t come out ready to play football tonight. I don’t want to blame it on the timing being off [because of the hurricane]. I thought we would be hungry, that not playing a game for a month would fire us up, but we were just not ready. I’m going to put the blame on the coaching staff and myself for not having the guys ready to play conference football tonight.”
Western started its next possession on its 43. Ung hit junior wideout Kahlil Mclean for a 22-yard gain to put the Eagles in Hawks territory, and Smith nailed a 43-yard field goal to make it 22-14. Smith kept Triton’s special teams quiet most of the night with several nice punts and five touchbacks on five kickoffs.
Western’s defense also hushed the Triton homecoming crowd. The Hawks struggled throughout the second half to move the ball on the Eagles. On two separate occasions in the final three minutes, Western forced a turnover on downs.
“We made a few adjustments after halftime,” Culbertson said. “Nothing major, I thought we stopped them pretty well in the first half. We just emphasized effort and getting to the football.”
Ung was also a crucial part of the Eagles’ success. The sophomore signal caller slung the ball all over the field, completing 17 of 25 passes (68 percent) for 146 yards and two touchdowns. He spent most of the night in shotgun formation, but on the Eagles’ final possession he stepped under center to kneel out the clock.
The victory bumps Western up to 1-5 on the season and 1-0 in Tri-County Conference play. They’ll face a tough task trying to make it back-to-back wins as they travel to Lee County (6-0, 1-0).
“I believe in work” Culbertson said. “We’ve just got to go back to work on Monday and get ready for Lee County. Hopefully this win will help these guys grow in confidence.”
Triton falls to 0-4 in its conference-opener and is still searching for the first win of the season. They’ll travel to Union Pines (3-3, 0-1).
“We’ve got to get a few guys healthy,” Penny said. “We were missing some of our offensive lineman tonight... We’ve got some guys playing in some new positions to pick up a little bit of slack, guys going both ways, so we’ve got to get them in shape quick and we’ve got to coach them up the best we can.”