Tay Mosley was fired up for his senior season as a running back for the Hobgood Academy football team – until he learned the season might not actually happen. Thirty miles east of Hobgood, Northeast Academy senior linebacker Luke Baker had that same gut feeling about his team as Mosley.
Baker missed his entire junior season when he broke his collarbone on the first play in the first game of 2016. Baker was looking forward to ending his high school career on a high note, but like Mosley, the possibility of not playing football as a senior was real.
Hobgood and Northeast Academy are part of the NCISAA Colonial Carolina five-team, 8-man football conference. Because of the small enrollment at most private schools in eastern North Carolina, teams in that league play 8-man football (eight players on offense, eight on defense) instead of the traditional 11-on-11.
In early August, when the schools were to start practice, neither had enough football players to field an 8-man team. But with the work of coaches, administrators and students, the two teams would become one, and together – as Northeast-Hobgood Academy – they would go on to win a state title.
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For years, fielding players has been a problem at both private schools. Last season, Hobgood had only eight total players and opened practice this season with the same number. The next county over, in Lasker, Northeast Academy started this season with 10 players, but lost four of those to injuries in the first few days of practice.
Both teams suddenly had the same problem – not enough people to play.
If a team has to forfeit a game, which Northeast Academy has had to do before, it costs the school $750, which is paid to the conference. Also, if a team starts a game but can’t finish it because of a lack of players, that also costs the school $750.
You have to have players on the field to continue a game, unless both coaches agree to go on without eight on the field. The other teams in the league average 20 players. Faith Christian, a 2A private school who plays 8-man football has the biggest roster with 34 players.
Hobgood held its first day of practice with exactly eight guys.
After the first day of practice on Aug. 1, Northeast Academy head coach Stevie Flythe, who left the team in early August for personal reasons, called his longtime friend, Hobgood head coach Brandon Lanier, and asked about his number of players.
Flythe, who played at Northeast Academy against Lanier and Hobgood during their high school days, joked they should combine the programs.
Lanier didn’t think it was such a bad idea.
Two tiny schools in two tiny towns
Hobgood is a tiny town in the northwest corner of Halifax County. It’s only 1 square mile and has a population of 348. Lasker, in neighboring Northampton County, has a population of 122. The two towns have one stoplight between them.
Hobgood does have a post office and a couple of stores. Lasker has Daughtry’s, a convenience store where you can stop in and grab a snack if you’re passing through. Both towns have a church. But Lasker’s biggest claim is Chris Daughtry, of “American Idol” fame, who lived in the town until he was 14.
Both towns are surrounded by fields; cotton, peanuts, soybeans, depending on the season. Generations of farmers and their families make up the student bodies at both schools.
Hobgood, which opened in 1970, almost closed two years ago before a few alums stepped in to keep the school open. Today, Hobgood has 84 kids in grades K-12, and just 26 in high school. Tuition there is $5,000 a year. Northeast Academy, which opened in 1966, has 157 kids, K-12, and 56 in high school. It costs $4,600 a year for high school students.
Over the past few seasons, Lanier and Flythe struggled with getting enough players to come out for their teams. Northeast Academy had to forfeit its entire varsity season in 2000, only fielding a junior varsity team. All it took was for two or three kids to decide they didn’t want to play and the season was in jeopardy.
“It’s been a couple years that we were on the verge,” Flythe said. “But we toughed it out.”
But 2017 would have been tougher than most. Lawrence Academy in nearby Bertie County, another 8-man school in their conference, had already decided not to have a team this season. If Northeast Academy and Hobgood also couldn’t play, the five-team conference would have been whittled down to two teams.
After the first day of practice Lanier and Flythe decided to move ahead with their idea to combine their teams. If any schools could make it work, it would be Northeast and Hobgood, two programs in similar towns that had a mutual respect for one another.
In 2013, when Hobgood junior offensive lineman Carson Smith, who’s now a student at N.C. State, was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, it was Flythe’s team that started wearing decals on their helmets to honor him. In 2016, one of Flythe’s former players, Caleb Topping, died after suffering from leukemia, and Flythe said the first call he received was from Lanier.
“If there ever were two schools that understood, you even look at the past few years with what both schools went through,” Flythe said. “We looked out for each other.”
In August, Lanier and Flythe decided to push their idea of a combined team. Both coaches went to their athletic directors for help.
Joe Ella Brown, the athletic director at Northeast Academy, and Pamela Tutor, the athletic director at Hobgood, sent a joint letter to NCISAA executive director Homar Ramirez, requesting that the two schools combine their football programs.
The idea of merging programs wasn’t new to Ramirez. Three years ago, he came to North Carolina from Minnesota, where he was the athletic director at Minnehaha Academy in Minneapolis. There, Ramirez learned about cooperative agreements, which involves two schools, each with low numbers, forming one athletic team. He talked to other schools with declining numbers in football and they merged together to develop one team. They had success in Minneapolis, so Ramirez didn’t hesitate to sign off on the one between Hobgood and Northeast Academy.
“We needed to have a pilot program here in North Carolina,” Ramirez said, “To not only see if it would succeed, but gain some positive momentum.”
Ramirez said the cooperative agreement was approved by the NCISAA board and passed a vote taken by the other teams in the Colonial Carolina Conference. The co-op would allow Hobgood and Northeast Academy to maintain football, but it also helped other schools in the conference maintain a complete schedule. Without a full schedule, other teams would potentially lose money due to lost ticket and concession sales.
Two teams become one
When Lanier presented the idea of merging the two teams to his players, they were excited, knowing they wouldn’t have to cancel their season. The extra players meant they didn’t have to play every snap of every game – on both sides of the ball. If they needed a break, they could take one.
The combined team started practicing together the second week in August and decided to use a combination of both schools as their name: Northeast-Hobgood Academy, or NHA. The team didn’t use a mascot this season.
Mosley, the running back from Hobgood who averages 321 yards per game, said the two teams got along right away. Baker, the linebacker from Northeast Academy, said he already knew some players from Hobgood, so it wasn’t like meeting complete strangers.
“It was just one of those unexpected things. I really liked it at first, though. I thought the practices were going smoothly and it felt great,” Mosley said about the merger.
Craig Ellison, the coach who took over for Flythe when he stepped down, now co-coaches with Lanier. Ellison said compromise played a big part in making the arrangement work.
When the coaches met to figure out the logistics of the merger, Ellison and Lanier decided Lanier would call the offense, while Ellison would call the defense.
Figuring out practices and games would be more of a challenge. The schools are 30 minutes apart, separated by the Roanoke River, down U.S. 258 through Scotland Neck and Rich Square. None of the coaches work at the schools, so practices couldn’t start until 5:30 p.m.
Neither of the two private schools have buses, so players had to drive or carpool to practices and games. The two schools agreed to hold practice at one school for a week, then at the other school the next week. Tutor and Brown, the athletic directors, agreed that three of their four home games would be played at Northeast Academy because that school has better parking and a better concession stand area.
Putting the roster together helped complete the process.
“We kind of had what they need and they had what we needed, so it was a great mix,” Lanier said. “They had some talented, big linemen, and we had some skill players. So you combine those two together and we have a decent football team.”
Northeast-Hobgood Academy played its first game on Aug. 18, defeating Cary Christian 51-6 on its way to a 7-4 record and a state title game.
The combined team, with eight player from Hobgood and 12 from Northeast Academy, went on to win the NCISAA 1A state championship this past Saturday, beating Halifax Academy, 25-24. Hobgood-Northeast Academy clinched the win when freshman defensive back Zy Mathewson intercepted a pass with seven seconds remaining.
“The kids got out there the first night and got along,” Flythe said. “I take my hats off to kids from both schools. It’s like the “Remember the Titans” story. We’re not dealing with a serious issue like segregation, but putting two schools together and having them get along, they’ve gotten along from the start and they made it work.”