CARTHAGE — Carthage’s veteran presence has been the crux of its 2019 team since practices started in late August. With 26 seniors on the roster, the majority of whom play significant roles in the Comets’ success, a state championship run has felt like a long time coming.
This is especially true for Collin Null and Elijah Whitfield, the only four-year varsity players on the team.
On Friday, at 3 p.m., they’ll play their last high school football game, in the Carrier Dome against Cornwall (11-0) for the state Class A championship.
For Null, who’s known as “Bubba” by practically everyone, reaching this point in his senior year is particularly meaningful. It wasn’t that long ago that he was suiting up as freshman with his brother Caleb, then a senior, alongside him.
“It feels like it’s finally paying off, all the hours we’ve spent watching film and working out,” Null said. “Elijah is out here running routes and I’m out here working on my footwork and my pass blocking, it’s finally just paying off.”
Null had never won a sectional title, let alone make it to the state championship game, leading up to this season. He’s also never played on a team quite like this one.
“I feel like this year we’re just all so close to one another,” Null said. “We do stuff on the weekends together, we go to team dinner every Thursday night. We’re all close.”
Before last Friday’s semifinal game against Canandaigua Academy, Null and Whitfield, along with fellow seniors Fombo Azah and Nick Cavellier walked out to midfield for the coin toss.
Over the next two hours, Null would record a sack and few tackles for losses and Whitfield would haul in an interception, one of four that the Comets (11-1) had in the game.
This will be Carthage’s third time in the Carrier Dome this season, the second time for a meaningful playoff game. For Whitfield, making it to this point is an unprecedented accomplishment.
“It finally feels like we’ve accomplished something,” Whitfield said. “We’ve been places, we’ve been to the sectional finals, we’ve gone undefeated in our league, and those things are all special, don’t get me wrong. But the state tournament is a whole different story and the fact that we’ve made school history, too, along with leaving a legacy, it’s really great.”
Whitfield has lived his whole life in Carthage and, like many of his teammates, has grown up around Carthage football. It’s been amazing, he said, to be a part of something the town has so whole-heartedly embraced.
“The community has been excellent, they’re bursting with energy,” Whitfield said. “Every store has a sign in its window, everyone is talking about how they’re going to support us for team dinners, we’re going to have a small pep rally at school. It’s just been great, people are donating everything, time, effort and money because we’re in the state tournament.”
Null and Whitfield are both active leaders yet have different personalities, which makes for a nice balance on the team.
“They’re both relatively vocal kids to be honest with you, whereas Bubba is a little bit more business and Elijah is a little bit more casual,” coach Jason Coffman said. “But when the whistle blows and they buckle it, they’re both all business.”
Both Whitfield and Null have played major roles for the Comets this season on offense and defense. Null is a two-time Times All North first-teamer and his success in 2019 is in line with that performance. Whitfield has stepped up big this season and has become a key linebacker for the Comets.
“This year he’s had to be the guy who takes on the big guy,” Coffman said. “In the past we’ve always had other linebackers in there with him where I can protect him a little bit, and he would maybe play in the slot a little bit more or he’d play against the smaller guys and he can kind of roam around. This year he’s been the guy who has to stop everybody in the middle. He’s going to take on an offensive guard or offensive tackle on almost every play.”
Neither Null nor Whitfield looked particularly nervous during Tuesday’s practice at Carthage high school. To them, Friday is a day to embrace.
“We’re just excited to play another game,” Null said. “We’re excited to play during Thanksgiving.”