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PRINCETON — A nearly three-hour road trip separates Princeton High from North Rowan, but something other than the white lines of Interstate 85 connects the two schools.
North Rowan, located in Spencer, where the Bulldogs will travel Friday night for a second-round matchup in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1-AA football playoffs, is a familiar program for head coach Travis Gaster.
Gaster — who graduated from Albermarle High and was coached by his father, Jack Gaster, while there — played in the same conference as the Cavaliers back when he still put on shoulder pads and cleats instead of a headset on Friday nights.
A winding coaching history has since taken the fifth-year Princeton head coach away from the area around his alma mater, but Albermarle and North Rowan, separated by just 30 miles, are both members of the same conference — the 1-A Yadkin Valley Conference — today.
The proximity between Gaster’s old stomping ground and his program’s upcoming opponent, strikes an even deeper connection than playing North Rowan enough times to know the school rhymes with fan.
“My mom was the principal there, my brother graduated from there, so there’s a lot of history there,” Gaster said. “It will be neat to go back and see those folks, get back around in that area.”
Even as the upcoming opponent is where members of his family used to work and study, there’s little doubt about which team the Gaster family will be supporting on Friday night. Gaster’s mother is often the first person he hugs after games, and his brother sends out mass texts during every away game to update supporters of the Bulldogs who can’t make it to the game.
But there’s certainly a prospect the school could end his program’s season.
Gaster’s No. 5-seeded Bulldogs (10-1) and the No. 4-seeded Cavaliers (9-3) both enter the match-up after blowing their first-round opponents out of the water.
Princeton led from the start against East Carteret in a 62-7 victory and North Rowan shut out South Davidson 47-0 to reach the second round. This week will serve as a primer to see just how prepared each program is when facing tougher competition after successful regular seasons where most games weren’t all that close.
Losing only the regular-season finale to Rosewood, Princeton felt somewhat disrespected to be seeded where it is in the playoffs, which has the program taking a lengthy bus ride to face a program that is 5-0 on its home field this season instead of hosting again.
“I feel like we were underestimated with them putting all those teams above us,” tackle Jake Crocker said. “But I’m glad we’re right here now.”
Whether home-field advantage comes into play or not, the winner will likely earn a meeting with No. 1-seeded Tarboro in the third round. The Vikings are heavy favorites against 1-A Carolina Conference member and No. 9 seed Newton Grove Hobbton on Friday night.
Gaster admitted on Thursday night that he knows less about the North Rowan program now than back when he still played against the Cavaliers.
“Currently I don’t know much about them,” he said. “They have a great coach, a great history.”
In the time since, Gaster’s program has undoubtedly started preparing for head coach Ben Hampton’s program, which boasts a dangerous running game and solid passing attack that presents a more balanced offense than the philosophy of the run-reliant Bulldogs.
The numbers of 5-foot-8 speedy senior running back Malcolm Wilson Jr. jump off the page as a key challenge for the Princeton defense. Wilson has rushed for nearly 1,500 yards on the season and has scored 25 of the team’s 34 rushing touchdowns. In the first round, Wilson rushed for 132 yards and four touchdowns to lead the way in the victory.
Bringing another element in the passing attack, junior quarterback Kyree Sims enters the contest with a 52% completion percentage on 152 attempted passes, throwing for 1,029 yards and nine touchdowns while tossing just four interceptions.
The challenge of defending the Cavaliers will make the consistency of Princeton’s own high-powered offense all the more important. The Bulldogs have a deep roster of competent backs, but eventually one offense will have to give in.
The game just might be the toughest test for Princeton to date, but the Bulldogs are embracing the challenge given the stakes. A win would guarantee the program its deepest playoff run since 2014, when the Bulldogs lost in the third round to Wallace-Rose Hill.
“I’m ready for them. I’m so ready,” senior Deviyeh Simmons said of North Rowan. “I’ve never played them in my life, but I want to play them. Just like I’m looking forward to Tarboro. I’m looking forward to them, too.”