Eastern Alamance’s opponent in Friday night’s NCHSAA 3A East Region championship game - Southern Nash - is someone the Eagles are plenty familiar with. This will mark the third straight autumn that the Eagles are traveling to Bailey for a state playoff showdown with the Firebirds.
A year ago, the Eagles went down to Bailey and handed Southern Nash a stunning 57-56 defeat on their home field, which ended the Firebirds’ season. The year before, it was Southern Nash who ended Eastern’s season in a 62-20 blowout. EAHS also defeated the Firebirds, 35-20, in 2015 in Mebane in the state playoffs.
“It seems like we’ve played those guys a lot lately,” EAHS head coach John Kirby said of Southern Nash, the alma mater of former Carolina Panthers All-Pro Julius Peppers. “They’re an outstanding program, and a really good team. They’re the No. 1 seed. We’ve had to go to that place two years in a row.”
All three of those previous playoff encounters between the Eagles and Firebirds from 2015 to 2018, however, were in the second round.
This time the two schools are playing for the East Region championship, and the right to play either Charlotte Catholic or King’s Mountain at N.C. State’s Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday, December 14 for the NCHSAA 3A state championship.
For the veteran-laden Eagles, coming off a huge 21-7 road win at Havelock, it’s business as usual. Another week of practice leading up to the latest most important game of their lives.
“This team, they seem different. They come to practice every day and they work hard, and they don’t really talk about anything,” Kirby said.
The Havelock game at times devolved into a physical, somewhat mean-spirited encounter, as two tough teams not used to losing fought for the right to continue along the state title path.
There was some trash talk, some illegal grabbing and a few late hits. And while it took the Eagles, missing star wide receiver Darius Kane, a little time to find their footing offensively, the Eastern defense forced four turnovers and held Havelock to barely half its typical offensive output.
Perhaps most importantly, however, Eastern managed to find its composure and stay focused on the task at hand late in the game, just as it appeared that Havelock seemed to get overly emotional and lose its composure down the stretch. Eastern managed to score its first touchdown, and then turn an untimely Rams fumble into a quick second score.
“When we got there, we moved the ball, and we made mistakes,” Kirby explained. “I thought the game got a little chippy. I thought we lost our composure. At halftime, we were able to regain that. Our Principal, Mr. (Eric) Yarbrough, spoke to our team on Thursday. He talked about facing adversity. It couldn’t have been a better topic, because I felt like we were facing adversity.”
“We lost our composure. We lost our focus (in the first half),” Kirby continued. “But then reiterating what he (Yarbrough) was talking about on Thursday, that kind of brought us back to reality. I thought our kids handled it well. I thought our seniors stepped up and made plays.”
Havelock had multiple unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in the fourth quarter, including one that resulted in a player’s ejection from the game. In addition to taking advantage of more than 120 yards in penalties from the Rams, EAHS also took advantage of a critical fumble recovery after taking a 7-0 lead early in the fourth quarter.
“The team that handled that adversity better in the second half was the team that won the game. They (Havelock) kind of lost it. We held our own. We were able to capitalize on a mistake, and we were able to put in the ball in the end zone on a long drive,” Kirby said. “Even after that, they had the penalty on the extra point, which allowed us to kick the ball in the end zone and pin them. You’ve got to have your common sense in this thing when you’re playing. I thought we lost ours momentarily, but I do think we re-gained it back. I think it says something about our players.”
Looking ahead to Friday’s battle with Southern Nash, Kirby indicated how much last year’s win over the Firebirds propelled the Eagles into the offseason - an offseason of dedication and hard work that helped lead to the Eagles reaching this point this year.
On the flip side, the Firebirds have spent an entire year getting motivated about the fact that Eastern, by the narrowest of scores, knocked them out of last year’s playoffs.
Nobody will have to wonder whether or not the Southern Nash folks will be fired up about the chance to end the Eagles’ season when the teams take the field Friday night.
“I thought that last year’s game down there kind of jump-started our guys into believing that they can play. Since that time last year we’ve only lost one game - that was the next week to Jacksonville (in the third round of the 2018 playoffs),” Kirby said. “I really felt like that game kind of got us going into the offseason. But I’m sure it inspired those guys in another way in the offseason.”
“We know that (Southern Nash) is another environment where there’s a little revenge factor there as well. We’re excited to be able to go. It should be a great game,” Kirby added.
Southern Nash has been led offensively by running back Quinton Cooley, who committed last spring to Wake Forest. Cooley has put up some monster numbers this year, rushing for over 2,600 yards and 45 rushing touchdowns through his first 13 games of the season. As a team, Southern Nash rushes for approximately 375 yards per outing.
Anyone who was at last year’s second round game between the Eagles and Firebirds can’t soon forget No. 20 in the gray jersey and red lettering who ran all over the place all night - posting a school record 413 yards. Cooley’s effort that night - and the tremendous film he put together - surely played a role in his early pledge to an ACC school.
“The running back they have is outstanding,” Kirby said of Cooley. “He’s going to Wake Forest. I can just see him playing with his shoulder hanging down last year, and continuing to play. We know that he’s going to be there. We know it’s going to be tough.”
Cooley ran for six touchdowns with 133 rushing yards in just three quarters of action this past Friday night as the Firebirds smashed Terry Sanford at home, 59-21, to punch their ticket to the state semifinal round.
If the Eagles are to get past the Firebirds and move on to Raleigh, they will have to do the same thing they did to another ACC-bound running back - UNC committed 4-star pledge Ja’Qurious Conley of Jacksonville Northside - along with another rusher with solid credentials in Havelock junior Kamarro Edmonds.
Namely, the Eagles must slow Cooley down just enough so he can’t take over the game the way he is used to taking over games.
Another huge key for the Eagles will be to continue trying to overcome the loss of Kane in the passing game.
Despite solid games from reliable veterans such as Lanier Rice and A.J. Camuto, the Eagles need to continue bringing along players like Ce’Darion Williams and Kendall Montgomery, who have been thrust into more prominent playing time with Kane out of the rotation.
“We had a few drops (against Havelock), but we just weren’t on (offensively),” Kirby said. “I’m hoping that now we’ve gotten our feet wet with Darius gone. Who thought you’d be saying with a sophomore being gone that you’d be struggling? But he was kind of a go-to guy. But I feel like with hopefully another week, those guys are going to get in tune, and get synched up a little bit better.”