Winning the Hodgin Cup never gets old to Chapel Hill High School’s football team.
Chapel Hill's 26-7 victory at East Chapel Hill was the Tigers' 10th in a row against their cross-town rivals, and to hear them tell it, it meant just as much as the first CHHS win over East in 1996.
"It definitely means something," Chapel Hill head coach Issac Marsh said. "This game means more than any other win, except maybe a state championship."
The Tigers desire for the cup, which annually goes to the winner of the CHHS-East football game, was heightened by the fact Chapel Hill had lost its first three games.
Chapel Hill has started 0-3 only one other time in Marsh's 10 years as head coach — in 2009. That team actually lost its first four, but then used a 14-7 win at East Chapel Hill as a springboard to win five of its last seven regular-season games and qualified for the state playoffs.
The Tigers see the timing of Friday's win as auspicious, coming as they ready for the start of Big-8 Conference play this week at Oxford Webb.
"I couldn't ask for a better game to play in," said Chapel Hill running back Darius Allen, who scored all four of Chapel Hill's touchdowns Friday.
Chapel Hill quarterback Grant Deselm, who had perhaps his most effective game as a field marshal despite the dearth of passing touchdowns, said having Allen in the lineup after missing the first three games was "huge." And his return was at exactly the right time.
"Every year, this is the big game," Deselm said. "Winning this never gets old. Never."
Those years have not been kind to East Chapel Hill.
At least not in terms of football.
East Chapel Hill has had one of the North Carolina’s most successful athletics programs, going all the way back to the Wildcats’ first varsity basketball team, which won the state’s 3A basketball championship in 1997.
Since then East Chapel Hill has won multiple Wachovia (now Wells Fargo) Cups and state championships. Wildcat teams have won state titles in cross-country, field hockey, lacrosse, soccer, swimming and tennis. The baseball team played in the state championship series.
But East Chapel Hill has never enjoyed a winning year in football.
That’s hard for them to accept.
The Wildcats have come close twice. The 2001 and 2012 team won five games and qualified for the NCHSAA playoffs.
The 2001 team, East’s first to qualify for the state football playoffs, ended up 5-7.
Last year’s team was East’s first football team to end the regular season at .500 and ended up 5-6 after a playoff loss at No. 1 Scotland County.
In between those two years, there have been little triumphs along the way, something to keep the Wildcats’ appetite sharpened and to make all those long summer days of preseason workouts seem worthwhile.
For example, the 2009 Wildcat team upset Northern Durham 24-21 on Homecoming Night, winning on a last-second, 50-yard field goal by Thomas Moore. Then-UNC coach Butch Davis was in the stands for that game, and Moore is now the placekicker for North Carolina. That was East’s only win that year, but the players savored it for a long time.
In 2011, Butch’s son Drew Davis set a North Carolina state record with 43 completions in a loss to Carrboro during his senior season. That same year, his chief target, Alex Moore, set a state record for receptions in a season (125) and became the first East Chapel Hill player named to the Associated Press All-State Team. Moore, no relation to Thomas, is at Elon now.
Those individual successes help, but they’re not the same as team wins.
For East, its “big” wins have come against Chapel Hill.
The Wildcats won two of the first three Hodgin Cup games – 28-14 at home in 1997, and 24-21 at Chapel Hill in 1998, becoming the first of the two teams to win at the rivals’ home field.
Since then, East has won just one of the Hodgin Cup games a 27-20 win in 2003.
Wins like that are what keep a team going, like a 20-handicap golfer who hits a hole in one. On any given hole, where a golfer might shank his drive, botch his approach but then sink a 35-foot putt to par, the player will think, “I hate this game; I hate this game. … Man, I love this game.”
So it is for Wildcat football players over the years, who’ve been close to victory in many, many games but only record a win about one time out of four.
A columnist older and wiser than I am once observed of the Carolina-Duke football rivalry that the Blue Devils had to win at least one out of 10 times to maintain interest. Too many losses in a row kill the joy of the game.
So it is for East Chapel Hill.
Nothing will increase its love of football more than more wins.