Maiden ended the past two seasons with six wins and six losses. That changed this season along with the roles of running back Nate Johnson and quarterback Matt Johnson.
The Blue Devils, seeded sixth in the 2-A West, are 8-3 and play Friday at No. 3 Polk County (10-1). Their three losses this season came against Newton-Conover and South Iredell — the top two teams in the Catawba Valley 2-A Athletic Conference — and Lincolnton. The Wolves are the top seed in the 2-A West after finishing the season 11-0.
“They are three of the best teams I ever played against,” Matt Johnson said, “and I have respect for those guys more than anything. When it comes down to it, those guys had a better football team than we did at the time.”
The Blue Devils enter the playoffs as one of the hottest teams from the Catawba Valley 2-A conference. Maiden ended the regular season on a four-game winning streak and finished in third place in the CVAC.
Nate Johnson came into his own during that late-season surge. The senior ran for 305 yards and five touchdowns — four in the season finale — in the final two games against Bunker Hill and Draughn.
“He's a senior, and he just stepped up and played extremely well,” Maiden head coach Brian Brown said. “He’s playing hard, and he’s had a great attitude all year. It’s not just me, but he’s made our whole coaching staff proud.
“We’re just really proud of the way he’s been playing.”
It’s a transition Nate Johnson worked on during the offseason going through drill after drill after drill. He even changed the way he holds the football. Nate Johnson used to hold it low and away from his body while running, but now he holds it high and tight.
Nate Johnson also worked a lot during summer on conditioning and overall strength to make the move to every-down running back. He improved his leg strength and can squat almost 400 pounds — up from 250 last year.
Nate Johnson is the Blue Devils’ second-leading rusher this season with 945 yards — only nine yards behind Matt Johnson’s 954. Nate Johnson, however, leads the way with 16 rushing touchdowns, and Matt Johnson is second with 12.
Nate Johnson’s increased role as a running back also took pressure off Matt Johnson to be Maiden’s leading rusher and passer as well as its leader in the huddle and on the sidelines.
“He was kind of worried and kind of shaky a little bit, but now that we developed my skills as a running back, it’s taken a lot of pressure off of him,” Nate Johnson said.
Matt Johnson’s role this season also changed. The junior quarterback is still the Blue Devils’ leading passer and rusher, but he is an improved leader.
“Last year, that was my role,” he said. “But I think the team has accepted me as a leader, and they look to me for confidence. That has helped me keep my cool this year.”
Keeping his cool is something Matt Johnson struggled with last year. Nate Johnson said the quarterback worried a lot in the 2009 season.
“My entire sophomore year, most of the time I felt like I was alone back there because I didn’t know Nate and we weren’t best friends,” Matt Johnson said. “Just like me and Hasan (Hopper) with the quarterback-receiver chemistry, me and Nate have chemistry too. We have each other’s back and most of the team has that too.”
Brown said both players are comfortable standing side by side in the backfield and know what the coaches expect from both of them.
On the field, Matt Johnson spent the summer traveling to different camps and combines working on his passing ability. He also learned to make better decisions in the pocket and how to read the defense’s coverage. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound junior in the regular season threw for 1,654 yards and 21 touchdowns.
But his biggest improvement came in the mental part of being a quarterback.
“I still have to calm him down every once in a while,” Brown said. “He has a motor that runs, and it’s tough. You ask a kid to run the ball 15 times a game and slow it down in the passing game. I definitely see a big improvement with that.”