Freedom 50, McDowell 24

Freedom's Desmond Caldwell (10) pushes into two McDowell defenders after a short pass Friday in Marion.

MARION — The Freedom football team jumped up by margins of 24-0 and 38-6 and was never pushed en route to a 50-24 road win Friday over rival McDowell to end the regular season, their fifth in a row in the head-to-head series.

 The Patriots (7-4, 4-2 Northwestern 3A/4A Conf.), who concluded a 10th straight regular season with a winning record, got perhaps an equally important victory earlier in the day.

Freedom won an early three-way draw over Alexander Central and Hickory (which proved to be necessary when the Cougars and Red Tornadoes also won Friday to tie at 4-2 in league play) for the NWC’s No. 2 3A state playoff bid, coach Luke Little said.

Freedom has not won a postseason game since 2015 and is 1-6 in its last seven playoff games.

“We could start at home, and our MaxPreps ranking is actually higher than last year so maybe we’ll get a good draw,” Little said. “It’s all about matchups this time of year. We pulled a bad matchup last year. Monroe coming from that conference with Catholic and Weddington was tough.”

Seniors Jayden Birchfield and Demorian Burgess, two-way FHS starters who each had an interception to lead the way on defense Friday, agreed that ending their high school days without a playoff victory would be a tough pill to swallow.

“It means everything to me to go try to win a playoff game now,” Birchfield said. “We haven’t done that yet so I want to do that.”

Burgess added: “We haven’t done that in what about six years. It would feel amazing if we could do it.”

In Friday’s win, Freedom scored on six of its first seven possessions as an offense averaging 205-plus yards both rushing and passing for the year continued clicking in both capacities.

Chase Young started the first two guests’ drives with carries of 59 and 50 yards respectively. Young rushed 13 times for 156 yards and three short first-half touchdowns, pushing him to 16 TDs on the ground this year (second in the county). He’s got 474 yards and nine TDs in just the last three games, going for 150-plus yards each time, and is now 21 yards shy of the program’s ninth 1,000-yard rushing season this decade but first since 2016.

“Chase is a powerhouse,” Burgess added. “That boy can’t be stopped.”

The Patriots also completed 16 of 17 pass attempts for 249 yards. Birchfield (8 for 9, 152 yards) was replaced at quarterback after halftime by freshman Ty Little (8 for 8, 97 yards).

Birchfield — who leads the county with 36 total offensive TDs for the year after setting the record last year with 42 — played his first varsity snaps at receiver in the second half and caught two passes for 38 yards.

“Not here, but I’ve played (receiver) a lot in travel ball and stuff like that. It was fun,” the two-time defending county player of the year and Navy recruit Birchfield said. “Our offense ran great. The line blocked great, wide receivers ran crisp routes. Chase was toting the rock.”

Little said he doesn’t expect Birchfield at receiver moving forward into the postseason.

“A lot of times when you get to this point in the season to keep kids active, especially when you’re playing a team that had only won one game, you’ve got to do some stuff at practice to keep them excited and prevent them from going through the motions,” Little said.

“Jayden always goes out there and goes against our secondary in practice. (Offensive line) coach (Buddy) King looked at me and said, that boy’s a pretty dang good receiver, coach. So I said well let’s put him out there and see. It was just more fun than anything.”

Desmond Caldwell had six catches for 143 yards and a TD apiece from Birchfield and Little, who also found Damien Dula for a passing score.

Freedom’s defense allowed 352 rushing yards (6.5 yards per attempt) as McDowell ran 58 total plays to Freedom’s 37 and had 22 first downs to FHS’ 16. But in addition to the pair of takeaways, Freedom got stops in the backfield by Curt Young, Noah English and Nick Rhoney and yielded no points on the Titans’ first four drives and five of the first six.

And Burgess returned his interception 100 yards for Freedom’s final TD on what he called the longest TD he’s ever scored.

“We’ve been fine on offense all year. That hasn’t been an issue,” Little said. “The issue’s been the toughness on defense and mixing in two or three freshmen here or there. We played four tonight off and on. And that’s a physical (McDowell) bunch. Even though their record ain’t that good, they can still line up and mash you when they want to. To be able to line up and make them work was positive.”

 

Paul Schenkel can be reached at pschenkel@morganton.com or 828-432-8950.

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