Eastern Alamance’s next step on its path towards a potential NCHSAA 3A state football championship was a road encounter Friday night at Havelock - a long 180-mile eastern trek the day after Thanksgiving.
The 13-0 Eagles, despite their lofty unbeaten record, were forced to travel to the 11-1 Rams because Havelock was given the No. 2 overall seed in the East Region, while Eastern was seeded No. 3.
EAHS and Havelock are certainly no strangers, as Eastern made its way down east and won nine and ten years ago on its way to back-to-back East Region titles, while the Rams came to Mebane in 2014 and repaid the favor to Eastern on its home field in the regional semifinal round.
This time around it was Eastern’s turn to prevail, as an opportunistic defensive effort that forced four Havelock turnovers, coupled with some well-time second half scores, led to a 21-7 Eagles triumph over the Rams.
The victory propels EAHS (14-0) into the NCHSAA East Regional final. The Eagles will travel next Friday night to top-seeded Southern Nash (14-0), who clobbered Fayetteville Sanford Friday night in Bailey. EAHS defeated the Firebirds last season in a thrilling 57-56 second round playoff game.
"In a game like that, what a great atmosphere. What a great turnout of people from the hometown. I felt like it was electric," EAHS head coach John Kirby said after the game. "I thought going into it, our kids were focused. We got to take a business trip, I guess you could say. It seems like it took us all day long, but I thought it was good. Havelock is rich in tradition. Every year if a team is going to win something, they have to go through this place. Any time you can go to Havelock and win, I think it’s a plus. When you can win on that stage and get to go to the Regional Finals, it’s even better."
The Eagles took on Havelock without standout sophomore wide receiver Darius Kane, who is out for the season with a broken collarbone suffered in the previous week’s playoff win over Jacksonville Northside. Without Kane, EAHS struggled to attain any momentum offensively early on. Eastern was held to just 114 yards of total offense over the game’s first two quarters.
"I think it changes a lot of what you do offensively," Kirby said of Kane's absence. "He’s been a great playmaker for us all year. It’s almost like you’ve got to have several. Because if you don’t have several, they can key in on one. I thought they (Havelock) tried to lock our guys down, and I thought they did a pretty good job of it. They matched up. (Rams star running back Kamarro Edmonds) played a little defense, which he hadn’t played much all year. They got their athletes on the field to match up with our guys."
Fortunately for EAHS, the Eagles’ hard-nosed defense made its way to Havelock ready to play.
The Rams featured an excellent offensive backfield of juniors Kamarro Edmonds and Jaylen Budget, who combined for over 2,000 rushing yards between them through the season’s first 12 games. But thanks to the EAHS defense, Edmonds and Budget were held from breaking off any long gains or reaching the end zone.
"I thought our defense played lights out," Kirby said "(Edmonds), we felt like we held him in check. But he still had 150 yards rushing, or somewhere in that neighborhood."
In a first quarter marred with penalties on both sides, the Eagles pushed into Rams territory following a 19-yard pass from quarterback Austin Bryant to sophomore Ce’Darion Williams, who worked his way into the EAHS lineup in place of Kane.
"Ce’Darion Williams, I thought that he came in and made some great catches, and he made a good run. He grew up a lot," Kirby said of Williams.
An offsides penalty on Havelock led up to a solid gain up the middle by Elijah Burnette, who charged his way down to the Rams 18-yard line. EAHS had a key early scoring opportunity, but incomplete passes and penalties forced the Eagles to attempt a field goal. Jackson Poteat’s kick had plenty of leg, but it sailed slightly wide to the right.
"There were a lot of ‘what ifs’ in that game that could have made it go either way - the dropped pass that they (Havelock) had in the first half. The fumble. But then we get down there close, and we don’t punch it in there, either. The missed field goal. We thought it was good. It was close. Just a lot of ‘what ifs.’ That game could have gone either way."
Despite the missed field goal, however, one of the biggest keys for Eastern in the first half was Poteat’s punting, which not only got the Eagles out of several jams deep in their own territory, but consistently pushed back the Rams onto their side of the field.
“I felt Jackson did a good job pinning them,” Kirby said of the senior punter.
Havelock moved near midfield on its second offensive possession, but Caleb Hester came through with a key pass breakup for the Eagles to force a punt. EAHS, however, was forced into a three-and-out. Poteat blasted a 50-yard punt that gave Havelock the ball at its own 30 with just over three minutes remaining in the opening period.
The Rams began a methodical run-based drive, as Edmunds got outside and followed good downfield blocking for a 15-yard gain and first down, and then busted the gut straight up the middle for another first down run.
Eastern helped out the Rams with a face mask penalty, but managed to force the Rams into a 4th and 1. Havelock got the first down as the first quarter wound to a close, but then the Rams fumbled near their own goal line, and EAHS recovered at its own 2-yard-line.
"They’re down close, and our guys didn’t quit," Kirby said of the key turnover. "They kept coming at them. I really feel like the pressure that our defensive front line and linebackers put on them caused it. I thought it was a caused fumble, and not necessarily something where they put it on the ground."
The remainder of the second quarter was a back-and-forth defensive struggle, as Eastern fended off Havelock with a fourth down stop, but then the Eagles were repeatedly stuffed by the Rams.
Finally, in the last minute of the half, Havelock put together another offensive march, but a key interception by Eastern’s River Faulkner ended the threat, ensuring a scoreless 0-0 halftime score.
Havelock got the ball to start the second half but the EAHS defense came up with another turnover, as Jackson Stokes picked off an Andrew Frazier pass near the ground at midfield.
The Eastern offense got moving and worked its way inside the Havelock 20 on runs by May and a pass over the middle to Williams. But on a key fourth down, however, the Rams sacked Bryant to force a turnover on downs.
The game remained scoreless, as EAHS came up with its own huge stop on a Havelock 4th-and-1, with Joey Teixeira tossing Frazier to the ground for a loss.
Finally, the EAHS offense got its act together and forged a scoring march. Completions to May and A.J. Camuto got the Eagles a first down, which led to a huge completion from Bryant to Lanier Rice. The senior caught the pass near his knees and was taken down at the Havelock 21. Another pass over the middle to Rice pushed EAHS near the Havelock 10 as the third quarter came to a close.
In the initial 30 seconds of the fourth quarter the Eagles opened the scoring, as Elijah Burnette burst through the Rams defensive line for a 5-yard touchdown and a 7-0 Eastern lead.
The ever-opportunistic Eagles defense came up with yet another huge turnover moments later, as miscommunication in the Havelock offensive backfield led to a fumble. EAHS took over around the Havelock 25-yard-line, and took advantage of a poorly-timed unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by the Rams to move half the distance to the goal.
After getting a single first down, May pushed the ball over the goal line from 8 yards out, which gave Eastern a 14-0 advantage with 10:22 left in the game.
With their postseason dreams slipping away, Havelock finally organized what turned out to be its only scoring march of the game. The Rams moved into Eastern territory through the air, and then went back to Edmonds, its most reliable ball carrier who finished the evening with over 130 rushing yards. Frazier made a key third down conversion on a scramble, and a pass interference call on Caleb Hester moved the Rams inside the 20.
Although Joey Teixeira nearly came up with a tipped interception, the Rams eventually did cross the goal line on a short quarterback keeper by Frazier. Havelock was within 14-7 with 6:20 to play, but yet another Havelock unsportsmanlike conduct penalty - this one assessed on the kickoff following the touchdown - guaranteed excellent field position for the Eagles.
After a couple runs by May, a huge pass over the middle from Bryant to Rice set the Eagles up at the Havelock 37. A couple more runs by May wound the clock under five minutes, but a third down pass to Rice was incomplete.
Facing a critical fourth down, the Eagles had a few choices. They could try a very long field goal, they could go for it on fourth down, or they could punt. It appeared that John Kirby and his staff had chosen to punt. But anyone who has watched the Eagles play several times this season knew that EAHS could have something up its sleeve.
Indeed, the Eagles ran a fake punt on the fateful fourth down, with May taking the ball and rambling 14 yards, staying inbounds for the vital first down. May finished the night with 120 tough yards on the ground, along with his various pass catches.
EAHS continued to milk the clock, but finally Elijah Burnette came through with arguably the biggest play of the night for the Eagles, as he burst free to the outside and raced to the end zone for a devastating 17-yard touchdown, which gave Eastern a 21-7 advantage with just over three minutes to play.
"I thought Colby ran the ball hard. When Elijah came in in spots, he ran the ball hard. Even the freshman we put in there, Alik Lewis, he handled himself well," Kirby said of the EAHS rushing effort.
Havelock tried one last desperation drive but EAHS senior defensive lineman Jordan Moore came up huge, first deflecting a pass to the ground on second down, and then coming through with a fourth down sack inside the Rams 10, which gave the Eagles the ball back.
EAHS could have gone for one more touchdown so deep in Rams territory. But the Eagles elected to run out the clock, taking the final knees in the shadow of the Havelock goal line.
The Eastern defense held Havelock's vaunted running game to just over 150 yards - well below its average of more than 280 rushing yards per contest. Havelock also aided the Eagles with well over a hundred yards in penalties. But when it was all said and done, EAHS's 4-0 advantage in the turnover category proved to make the difference.
"I thought we put a lot of pressure on their quarterback," Kirby said of Eastern's defensive pursuit. "I thought that we probably harassed them in some ways that (they weren’t used to facing). Those guys have been putting a lot of points on the board, and they’ve had their way with almost everyone they’ve played against. I thought our defense put pressure on them. And sometimes when you put that pressure on them, strange things can happen."
So now for the Eagles, it comes down to a rematch against Southern Nash - another school that EAHS has gotten familiar with in postseason play in recent years. To the winner, a trip to Carter-Finley Stadium on the campus of N.C. State University and a berth in the NCHSAA 3A state championship game awaits.