Wesley Shade (No. 3), David Sawyer (No. 64) and Grant Humphreys are among the 27 JH Rose senior football players who will be honored on Senior Night Friday. (252Buzz file photos by Bill Hudson)
By Mike Grizzard
After Friday night, David Sawyer knows he likely will have at least one more game to play on J.H. Rose’s Percy Daniels Field. But he and 26 fellow seniors will only have one Senior Night, so emotions are stirring with their careers drawing to a close.
The Rampants host New Bern at 7 p.m. Friday in an Eastern Carolina 3-A/4-A Conference game originally scheduled to end the regular season, but Rose officials were working to reschedule a non-conference game with Franklinton postponed by Hurricane Florence for next week. Rose (6-3, 3-2 ECC) also could host a first-round Class 3-A playoff game depending on its seeding.
For now, Sawyer is focused on making his Senior Night memorable.
“You want to win your first game of your senior year and you want to win your last game,” said Sawyer, a 6-6, 280-pound offensive lineman and tri-captain. “Those are the games that really leave a taste in your mouth. Your whole family is going to be there. You want to play well for them, and obviously I want to win for all the seniors on the team.
“This is my night,” Sawyer said. “I’m going to remember this for myself and my kids, and I want to make sure that whenever I tell them I can tell them that we won.”
Beating a New Bern team that has dominated Rose during the last decade but suffered through a 2-7 season would be extra special, Sawyer said. The Bears ruled eight of the last nine meetings, and the Rampants have not knocked off New Bern at home since a 21-3 win in 2008.
“It’s been a long time,” Sawyer said. “That’s a legacy we seniors want to leave going into the next class and the class after that.”
Rose head coach Dave Wojtecki owns a 1-4 record against the Bears with the only win coming in a 58-14 rout in 2015. Despite New Bern’s four-game losing streak in which it has been outscored 200-36, Wojtecki remains cautious.
“New Bern is always New Bern,” he said. “They’re still very athletic. They still have a lot of very good football players. Obviously some things haven’t gone their way, and they haven’t gotten the wins that they normally do, but it’s a game that we can’t think that they’re just going to come in and let us beat them. We’re going to have to play good football and take care of what we need to take care of. Right now we have to win these next two to help our placement in the playoffs.”
That’s a dramatic turn for the Rampants, who lost their final three games last season, including a 53-47 defeat at New Bern, to finish 3-8 and out of the playoffs. Senior Night ended in a 49-43 loss to Eastern Wayne, a disappointment running back Grant Humphreys does not want to repeat.
“It made the junior class feel kind of bad because we couldn’t let them go out on a win on their Senior Night, so that hurt them on top of a not-so-great season,” he said. “It’s kind of bearing on all the seniors that this is coming to an end. It’s definitely hitting me. We were talking the other day in the field house about whenever it was Senior Night we would see all the seniors cry. We were like, ‘Dang, I don’t know why they’re crying.’ I have no idea what I’m going to do. I know I’m going to be sad, but we’ll have to see.”
Wesley Shade, one of Rose’s most versatile players, said maintaining focus will be vital amid Senior Night festivities.
“It’s obviously going to be a fun night, kind of memorable,” said Shade, a receiver, safety, kicker and punter. “Everybody remembers their Senior Night, but it is a distraction I think. Wo (Wojtecki) said we’ve never beaten New Bern on Senior Night. With all that going around before the game, you still have to stay focused on the task. Obviously we have playoff seeds on the line so we have to keep that in our head and play hard.”
Rose has accomplished that throughout this turn-around season, falling only to Havelock, South Central and D.H. Conley, which have a combined 25-3 record. The Rampants are coming off a 42-26 win at Eastern Wayne on Monday and have won three of their last four games.
Along with a year of experience, Shade credits Rose’s success this year to a different mind-set and commitment.
“I think it’s all just attitude,” he said. “We have the same players. You look at our roster, and there’s not much turnover. It’s the same guys. It’s just attitude, seeing what happened last year and knowing what we had to change.
“It all started, I would say, last December when we started workouts,” Shade said. “We put last season behind us and looked forward to next season, and everything changed. The attitude’s been a lot better. We’re playing a lot harder, not really arguing between each other as much and trusting the system and trusting our coaches.”
Sawyer points to a gathering of the seniors at Pizza Inn to discuss filling a leadership void from the previous year and returning Rose to its winning tradition.
“This year we’ve been very intentional,” Sawyer said. “All the seniors are all on the same page. We’re all pulling from the same side. We try to keep the intensity level up. We’ll even go talk to coach with different ideas that we have to possibly help with practice intensity and make sure that players are doing everything they can to achieve the maximum of what we can do.”
Wojtecki appreciates the effort and says this group of seniors has been special.
“This has been a great, great group for four years,” he said. “There’s a lot of good memories with this group, just good kids. You’ll always miss a group that has been so good at what we’ve been trying to do. They’ll definitely be missed.”
Mike Grizzard of Winterville has more than 30 years of experience as a writer for both print and digital publications in the areas of sports, business, news, faith and personal profiles. Contact Mike at 252-916-4206.