With blades of grass still stuck to his biceps and beads of sweat dripping from his brow, Fred Williams pieced together what to make of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s upset win over fifth-ranked Winston-Salem State as he stepped to the podium.
The veteran linebacker glanced at Pete Shinnick in the back of the team’s meeting room inside Bob Caton Fieldhouse searching for words after labeling Thursday’s victory the most emotional of his six-year career.
“I’m still excited and can’t really get everything out right now,” Williams said, pausing to take a breath. “The coaches, they stayed with us even when we were down telling us we had to believe. They never gave up on us. The crowd, its energy, it was a lot.”
UNCP’s nationally-televised moment of exuberance was the culmination of seven years worth of daily time clock punches from Shinnick, his staff of assistants and the hundreds of players that have come through the program. The stiffest home challenge to open a season in school history against a Division II national runner-up could not have been scripted any better.
Even if it was penned by the underdog.
Williams appeared to have sealed the Braves’ win with 1:53 remaining after pouncing on a fumble at the Winston-Salem State 24-yard line. The excitement that made its way through the UNCP sideline was short-lived once senior tailback Elliott Powell coughed it up on the next play, providing the Rams with one last glimmer of hope with no timeouts at their own 18.
“Elliott Powell’s going to rush for a lot of yards for us and that’s the first time he’s put the ball on the ground since the second day of spring,” Shinnick said. “But nobody worried and nobody panicked.”
The Hollywood ending was nearing its final page with the outcome still very much in doubt.
“I was pacing on the sidelines,” said UNCP quarterback Luke Charles. “I’ve never been that nervous through an entire game because usually my butterflies go away after the first two or three plays. I had them the entire game. The atmosphere was awesome, but I was nervous.”
Winston-Salem State quarterback Anthony Carrothers moved his team to midfield before Domonique Bridges’ acrobatic interception with 37 seconds left at UNCP’s 29-yard line ended the threat and snuffed out the opposition’s 20-game regular reason winning streak.
Charles, a two-year starter, couldn’t remember a more important win in his life, cycling through his high school, junior high and Pop Warner days in a matter of seconds. Like Williams and fellow teammate Mike Lawrence, whose late 44-yard interception return for a touchdown shifted momentum, Charles grinned ear-to-ear reliving the moment.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” Charles said. “I was having a blast.”
Charles overcame two third-quarter turnovers during what amounted to a 21-0 run from Winston-Salem State to connect with John Rich on a well-executed 31-yard completion on the opening snap of the final frame. Rich was dragged down by two defenders inside the Rams’ 10, setting up Lumberton alum Connor Haskins’ second of three successful field goal tries four plays later.
Haskins’ boot put the Braves ahead for good, 22-21. He added a 44-yarder with 6:58 remaining to widen the lead.
Lawrence’s pick-six came late in the third came after the Rams’ Larry Hearn swiped an errant pass from Charles on the previous play.
“I had to have a short memory (after the turnovers),” Charles said. “My teammates picked me up.”
Williams said his team would take Friday to soak up the win before moving on to Fayetteville State prep on Saturday, pushing the Winston-Salem State victory into the “any other game” file.
Typical player speak, sure, but Williams and the rest of the Braves know better.
UNCP took its grand stage against a championship-level opponent and paved a way for a new era of Braves football. It was the school’s first 3.5-hour time slot in front of a national audience in seven seasons, a chance to show what Brave Nation has become.
UNCP’s facilities, its stadium and its town had plenty of airtime on CBS Sports across several packages, a matchup under the lights that came to a fruition after nearly a year of planning thanks to the powers that be at both universities including former Braves athletic director Dan Kenney.
The Braves hope the four-point win was program-changing, one that rocked the local stratosphere and signified a “here we are” moment for players, students, faculty, staff and first-year athletic director Dick Christy.
Some may call it an overreaction, but the record number of fans that left with new UNCP gear and a renewed sense of pride behind their community’s team will say different.
They all went home just before midnight asking the same question — Who do we play next?
Reach Staff writer Brad Crawford at 910-272-6119 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MrPalmettoSDS.