Eastern Alamance’s run at a NCHSAA 3A state championship came to a bitterly disappointing end Friday night, as the Eagles suffered their only loss of the 2019 season - a 32-29 setback to Southern Nash in the East Regional championship game.
“Everybody hurts. Everybody is sad,” EAHS head coach John Kirby said moments after the game. “You know going into the playoffs, though, there’s only going to be one team that’s happy, and that’s the one that wins it all. Unfortunately, that’s not us.”
The Eagles, who entered the NCHSAA playoff’s fourth road with an unblemished 14-0 record, hit the road for the second straight week. After traveling to Havelock November 29 and coming away with a 21-7 third round win over the Rams, this time EAHS made its way to Bailey - approximately an hour and a half to the east - and took on a Firebirds squad that, like Eastern, was a perfect 14-0 coming into the game.
Southern Nash, the top seed in the East Regional playoffs, employs an old-school double wing offense, relying heavily on Wake Forest bound tailback Quinton Cooley, who rushed for over 400 yards in last year’s second round playoff matchup against EAHS.
The Eagles knew that the Firebirds would be giving the ball to Cooley over and over and over, and it was proven on the opening drive of the night. Amidst an electric atmosphere at Southern Nash’s stadium - a capacity home crowd countered by a massive Eastern Alamance showing that filled the bleachers on the visitor’s side - the Firebirds set the tone for the entire night in the first quarter.
Taking the opening kickoff, the Firebirds went 80 yards in 19 plays, melting over 10 minutes off the clock. Although EAHS’s aggressive defense forced six third downs and two fourth downs over the course of the game’s opening possession, Cooley continuously found a way to move the chains, and eventually crossed the goal line from 1 yard out. Cooley had 13 carries on the opening drive alone, churning out 60 yards.
Starting their first offensive possession with just 1:19 left in the first quarter, the Eagles rapidly responded. On a first down play at their own 43, EAHS senior quarterback Austin Bryant stepped back and found sophomore wide receiver Hunter Westbrooks in the right flats.
Westbrooks, Eastern’s leading receiver on its undefeated junior varsity squad this fall, caught the pass near the sideline and broke back inside. Westbrooks’ move allowed him to elude the Southern Nash cornerback, and he raced his way to a 47-yard touchdown. Jackson Poteat’s extra point gave the Eagles a 7-6 lead heading into the second quarter.
“I thought that Hunter did a great job coming in there (and making a big play), and I thought Austin did a good job of finding him,” Kirby said of EAHS’s first touchdown.
Eastern’s defense got a huge stop on Southern Nash early in the second quarter, but the Eagles were unable to capitalize. A false start on a 4th and 2 play forced EAHS into a punt, and the Firebirds only needed two plays to go 80 yards and retake the lead.
Following an 18-yard scamper by quarterback Matt Foster to the Southern Nash 38-yard line, Cooley got another handoff, found a hole, broke out of a tackle in open space, and darted 62 yards down the sideline, holding off Eastern’s Evan Powell along the way. Cooley’s 62-yard touchdown made the score 12-7 in favor of Southern Nash, but the Firebirds were stopped on a 2-point conversion attempt.
Southern Nash then came up with a key play when the Eagles reloaded offensively, as a Bryant pass along the sideline was intercepted by Jackson Vick. The Firebirds worked from the EAHS 35 all the way down to inside the 5. Eastern’s defense came up with a pair of crucial stops, and on a 4th and goal from the 3, Southern Nash elected to kick a field goal. Kicker Evan Barnes’ 20-yard conversion made the score 15-7 with 4:31 left in the half.
The Eagles regrouped quickly, however, and once again burned the Firebirds through the air. On a 2nd and 19 from Eastern’s own 13 following a holding penalty, Bryant took a snap and drilled sophomore Ce’Darion Williams with a pinpoint pass, just over the reach of a Southern Nash defender. Williams broke free and scored from 87 yards out.
The play of Williams and Westbrook was huge for the Eagles as they sought to overcome the significant loss of another sophomore - Darius Kane - who was the varsity squad’s leading receiver this fall. A broken collarbone forced Kane to miss both the Havelock and Southern Nash games. But the Eagles’ offensive attack churned on, thanks in large part to Westbrooks and Williams.
“Ce’Darion and Hunter both played on our JV team this year. We kind of felt like going into tonight that we needed some speed,” Kirby said.
EAHS went for two to tie the game following Williams’ long score, and Colby May took an end-around pitch, thought about throwing a pass, but eventually barreled his way into the end zone. The 15-15 stalemate held into halftime, with Caleb Hester picking up a leaping interception on a desperation Southern Nash pass in the half’s closing seconds.
Eastern got the ball to start the second half, and following a couple runs by May and an incomplete pass on third down, the Eagles went for it on fourth down at their own 24. Another incomplete pass gave the ball back to the Firebirds in prime field position.
“Looking back, I wish he hadn’t gone for it on fourth down,” Kirby said of the fateful fourth down play call early in the second half. “That probably wasn’t very smart. But we kind of felt like we had something there - and we saw something - but it just didn’t work out."
The Eagles came up with an important defensive stand after getting denied, with Elijah Burnette picking up a key tackle for loss that forced Southern Nash into a 4th and 11 from the EAHS 25. Up stepped Barnes, who blasted a huge 42-yard field goal that gave the Firebirds an 18-15 lead less than three minutes into the second half.
Eastern went back to work offensively, with Bryant connecting with Williams over the middle for a first down. Following a Southern Nash pass interference penalty, the Eagles moved into Firebirds territory. Another completion to Lanier Rice got EAHS inside the Southern Nash 30. But then the Firebirds got another turnover, as Bryant threw a pass along the right sideline near the end zone that was picked off by Vick - his second interception of the night.
The pair of interceptions, along with a handful of offsides and false start penalties that curbed EAHS drives or allowed Southern Nash to extend its own drives, proved huge in the end.
“You can’t make mistakes against a team like that. They’re going to make plays without us helping them,” Kirby said.
The Firebirds again asserted the initiative with their run-based offense, as Foster converted a third down, and Cooley overcame a Southern Nash holding penalty with a 17-yard run. A subsequent 15-yard run by Cooley pushed the Firebirds into Eagles territory, and then Cooley broke free again and raced 44 yards for a touchdown, making the score 25-15 in favor of Southern Nash with 2:30 left in the third quarter.
At a point of real adversity, Eastern showed the unflappable nature that made them Mid-State Conference champions and holders of a perfect 14-0 mark heading into the East final.
With the Eagles’ offense in hurry-up mode, May converted a third down with a hard run, and Bryant got another first down with an 11-yard scamper down the right sideline. On a 3rd and 7 from the Southern Nash 16, Bryant connected with Rice, who had a great second effort to push across the goal line for a touchdown. Rice’s 16-yard score pulled the Eagles within 25-22 heading into the fourth quarter.
Southern Nash got the ball back and began another long, methodical drive. The Firebirds successfully converted two more third downs and one fourth down on the critical march, which was climaxed by a 19-yard scoring run on a 3rd and 1 by Daylon Whitley, which once again gave the Firebirds a 10-point lead.
Trailing 32-22 with 7:02 to play, the Eagles again struck quickly through the air. After a long kickoff return by Burnette that pushed EAHS all the way to the Southern Nash 48, Bryant rolled left and found A.J. Camuto wide open over the middle. Camuto’s 35-yard touchdown made the score 32-29 with 5:37 to play.
Sensing that they may not have any more offensive possessions, the Eagles attempted an onside kick, but Southern Nash recovered. Predictably, Southern Nash went back to its time consuming offensive approach. A powerful 12-yard run by Cooley, in which he dragged multiple EAHS defenders with him, set the Firebirds up at the Eagles 26.
As the clock wound down, the tiring Eagles defense once again valiantly forced the Firebirds to convert critical third downs. On a night when Southern Nash didn’t turn the ball over, the home team came through each and every time in the closing minutes. The Firebirds converted a 3rd and 1 at the EAHS 17 as the clock ticked under three minutes. Eastern began calling its timeouts, and forced a 4th and 1 at the EAHS 6-yard line with two minutes left.
Southern Nash again went to Cooley, and again the rugged back converted for a vital first down, which allowed the Firebirds to run out the clock and punch their ticket to Saturday’s NCHSAA 3A state championship game against Charlotte Catholic at Raleigh’s Carter-Finley Stadium. Cooley finished the evening with 48 carries for a whopping 357 yards.
“They’re sneaky numbers. We felt like we kind of slowed him down. But 350 yards - that’s unbelievable,” Kirby said of Cooley’s effort. “He is a very good player, but I thought we did a good job defensively. I thought we swarmed to the football. I wouldn’t say we kept him in check, but I thought we slowed him down a little bit.”
Bryant finished the night with four touchdown passes to four different receivers, and more than 200 passing yards. But in the end, the Eagles came up just a couple plays short. A couple stops on defense. A big play or two more on offense. A key turnover that never came. It was a brutal way for the Eagles to end what had been a truly magical season up to that point.
“We knew coming into it that it was going to come down to the wire. We had our opportunities, but we didn’t capitalize when we had to,” Kirby said. “We made big plays when we had to. It’s hard to score every time you’ve got it, but I thought our offense played well enough to win the football game. We kind of knew it was going to be like this.”
“I felt like we played good football. I felt like we played hard. We flew to the football. It’s just a tough situation,” the EAHS head coach continued. “You’re limited to the number of times you’re going to get the ball. We knew coming in that you had to capitalize when you did get the ball. And we didn’t do that every time. We did it a lot of the time, but we didn’t do it every time.”
Despite the heartbreaking loss, however, the Eagles can take solace in another outstanding autumn on the gridiron. A Mid-State Conference title. An undefeated regular season. A run to the East Regional championship round of the state playoffs. And a lifetime of memories.
“You know, I think we’ll look back in a week or two and say we had a good year,” Kirby said.