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Wildcats seek right balance

Clayton's defense can't stop New Hanover's Jacen Murphy during a state playoff game Nov. 9 at Legion Stadium. (Photo by Photo by Jeff Janowski)

New Hanover High School's football team prides itself on having one of the thickest playbooks around. The Wildcats can spread the field or run it, and can set up in a dozen defensive alignments.

On Friday, none of that matters.

When the Wildcats travel to New Bern in the third round of the playoffs, it'll be less about an on-the-field chess match and more about mental maturation.

"Xs and Os and Jimmys and Joes have nothing to do with this game," New Hanover coach Kevin Motsinger said. "It's whoever can handle the other's success and whoever allows doubt into their head."

It's been central to the growth of New Hanover in the past half decade. Motsinger has repeatedly said New Hanover was on a short list of teams who could win a state championship. But the Wildcats had a long history of shooting themselves in the foot in big games – one bad play or turnover snowballs and the game quickly turns out of hand. That trend was most clearly expressed in a 15-year losing streak to cross-town rival Hoggard.

Things started to change in 2009 when the Wildcats made the Eastern Regional final. In 2011, New Hanover finally beat Hoggard and did so again this season. Getting those wins renewed a sense of trust in the program and helped the Wildcats manage massive emotional swings.

"We have a lot of leadership out there," senior Jacen Murphy said. "So it's not as hard as it was in past years to get everybody committed. And we're all on the same page. That's big. The focus is where it needs to be."

The best examples come from Motsinger's weekly pre-practice talks in the New Hanover weight room. In past years, players were skeptical when he talked about their championship chances – now they buy in.

"In the past, they wanted to believe," Motsinger said. "Now they believe."

The next hurdle for New Hanover is Friday night's opponent: New Bern. The Bears feature an offense just as versatile as New Hanover's, a defense just as strong and a 19-game unbeaten streak against Mideastern Conference opponents.

In the teams' regular-season meeting on Sept. 28, New Hanover's old demons resurfaced: the Wildcats committed eight turnovers in a 63-34 loss. Motsinger said his team was too amped up for the game, that they felt it was too important.

While that intensity has sometimes burned New Hanover, the Wildcats embrace it. And both teams know what the other will run Friday night, so it comes down to how well they harness that intensity.

"I think it goes back to emotions," Murphy said. "If we can control our emotions and keep our composure, I think, I know that we can win this football game."


Playoffs Week 3

All high school football games start at 7:30 p.m.. Follow along online tonight with our live chat and Twitter updates at

New Hanover at New Bern

S. Columbus at E. Bladen

Red Springs at James Kenan

East Columbus at Albemarle


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