Eastern Alamance began its postseason journey Friday night with a home game in the first round of the NCHSAA 3A state playoffs against Wilson Hunt.
The Eagles, who put together a perfect 11-0 regular season to win the Mid-State Conference championship and earn the No. 3 overall seeding in the East Region of the 3A playoffs, built a commanding 27-0 halftime lead over the Warriors on their way to a 48-14 triumph, which advances Eastern into next week’s second round and another home game at Fred Brady Stadium against Jacksonville Northside.
“It’s the playoffs - you win and advance. And that’s what we did. So we’re happy to be advancing,” Eastern head coach John Kirby said after the game.
On the initial offensive possession of the evening, Hunt stunned the Eagles defense - which had allowed only 13 combined points over its previous four games coming into the playoffs - for a 23-yard run and an early first down. But Eastern caught on to the Warriors, stuffing three straight run plays to force a punt.
Eastern opened up offensively at its own 18-yard line. Following a 4-yard run on first down by Colby May, quarterback Austin Bryant connected with tight end Lanier Rice over the middle to move the Eagles into Warriors territory. On a 3rd and 7 play, Hunt stuffed May for a 2-yard gain, forcing a 4th-and-5.
The Eagles elected to go for it, and Bryant bootlegged his way to a critical first down. Running back Elijah Burnette pushed the Eagles even farther into Warriors territory, leading up to a 19-yard touchdown pass from Bryant to Rice, which gave Eastern a 7-0 lead at the 6:17 mark of the opening quarter.
The Eastern defense came through on a key 3rd and 3 run play by Hunt to force a three-and-out, and the Eagles offense went back to work. Starting at their own 38-yard line, the Eagles got a 7-yard run by Colby May, and then a defensive holding penalty on Hunt pushed EAHS back into Hunt territory at the Warriors 42.
May took another carry and gained nine yards to the 33, and then the senior running back broke off a 26-yarder, which pushed the Eagles down to the Hunt 7. On the ensuing play, Bryant executed a brilliant read option and scampered his way untouched to a 7-yard touchdown, which gave the Eagles a 14-0 lead with 3:21 left in the opening period.
Hunt moved into Eastern territory on its subsequent offensive possession, but Tyler Pendygraft came up with a key 3-yard loss for Eastern on a first down at the EAHS 45. Another stop by the Eagles forced a third down for Hunt at midfield, and EAHS held the Warriors to just three yards on a quick pass in the flats.
Starting at their own 6 on their next offensive possession, the Eagles got 17 yards from May on a first down run, pushing Eastern up to its own 23. On the next play, Bryant connected over the middle with Darius Kane. The Eagles sophomore made a cut to the left and found himself open. Kane turned on the jets and beat everyone to the end zone. Kane’s 77-yard score gave the Eagles a decisive 21-0 advantage with 10:38 left before halftime, and the Eagles had gone 94 yards in just two plays.
“Darius is a senior in a sophomore’s body. He makes plays. Darius is unbelievable. He’s a really good football player,” Kirby said.
Wilson Hunt rolled the dice and went for it on fourth down in its own territory when the visitors got the ball back, but the Eagles defense sniffed out a screen pass for a 6-yard loss, giving EAHS another opportunity to put the game away.
After May caught a key third down pass from Bryant, which pushed the Eagles down inside the Hunt 15, Bryant connected with a wide open A.J. Camuto in the end zone on the very next snap. Camuto’s touchdown gave EAHS a 27-0 cushion with 7:30 left in the first half.
Eastern could have made things even worse for the Warriors before halftime, as the Eagles defense got an interception from Caleb Hester, as well as a turnover on downs inside Hunt’s 15-yard line. But Eastern was unable to capitalize, as a lost fumble and a turnover on a punt return held the score at 27-0 in favor of the Eagles at halftime.
“I thought we did some good things, and I thought we looked sloppy, too,” Kirby explained. “I thought in the beginning, we came out and did well. Then we got out of sync a little bit. We got out of sync a little bit because they started bringing a little pressure, and we didn’t do a good job adapting to it.”
Taking the second half kickoff, the Eagles took flight at their own 35-yard-line. After moving once again into Warriors real estate, Bryant came through with yet another fantastic read option play fake, finding himself all alone with plenty of room to run. Thanks to some outstanding downfield blocking by the Eagles offensive linemen and receivers, Bryant broke off a 49-yard touchdown run, which gave Eastern a 34-0 lead with 10:55 left in the third quarter.
Eastern’s alert defense then came through with yet another turnover, as the Eagles recovered a backwards lateral by the Warriors at the Hunt 13. A completion from Bryant to Rice pushed the Eagles to the 5, where they faced a fourth and 2. But once again EAHS came through, as a 5-yard touchdown run by May gave the Eagles another score, and a 41-0 lead with 9:22 left in the third quarter.
The Eagles defense forced yet another turnover - this one a fumble recovery from River Faulkner - and two carries by Quentin Idley crossed the goal line, with a 3-yard run giving Eastern a 48-0 lead with 8:39 left in the third quarter to institute a running clock.
“I thought our defense swarmed to the ball. We got after them. They picked up some yards, but we didn’t break,” Kirby said.
As the Eastern coaches began inserting backups and junior varsity players into the rotation, Wilson Hunt finally broke up the shutout, as wide receiver Davon Mckayhan got open and hauled in a 75-yard touchdown pass as the third quarter wound down.
“You don’t want to give up any points, but the fluke play that they got to score - that happens,” Kirby said. “That’s a lesson to be learned. We got beat by Orange High School years ago on a similar play. It was tight in the game. Bad snap, and here we go flying, and somebody steps up and makes a play.”
Trailing the Eagles 48-7 as the fourth quarter began, Hunt put together another touchdown drive against the Eastern backup defenders. The EAHS defense put up a brief goal line stand, forcing a fourth down, but Hunt finally scored at the 5:57 mark, which made the final score a little closer on paper than it really was.
When it was all said and done, the EAHS defense had held the Warriors to less than 150 yards of total offense, while Bryant threw for 170 yards and three touchdown passes, and May added over 90 yards rushing.
“We didn’t throw the ball as much tonight as we’ve been throwing. I thought they gave us the run, and I thought that we did a good job of running the football,” Kirby said.
Eastern (12-0) now looks ahead to a matchup with Jacksonville Northside, who blew out C.B. Aycock, 50-6, on November 14 to advance to the second round.
Northside comes to Mebane with a 7-5 overall record, which is somewhat deceiving given the Monarchs’ talent and the level of competition they’ve faced throughout the season. Northside finished second in the Coastal 3A Conference with a 4-1 record - its only loss being a 24-21 loss at Havelock in late October.
In their non-conference schedule, the Monarchs played the likes of New Hanover, who currently sits 11-1 and in the second round of the NCHSAA 3AA playoffs, perennial eastern powerhouse Wallace-Rose Hill, as well as Southern Nash, who is the No. 1 overall seed in the East Region of the NCHSAA 3A playoffs. The Monarchs suffered a 45-22 loss on the road at Southern Nash.
“We know we’ve got a tough opponent next week in Jacksonville Northside. Their record is misleading, in that they’ve lost several games, but they’ve played some really good football teams,” Kirby said.
Although the Eagles know they’re going to be challenged in the second round by Northside perhaps as they haven’t been challenged all season, Kirby continues to be impressed with the workmanlike attitude this group of veteran EAHS players have taken to the season.
“I think our theme is one game at a time,” Kirby said. “This team has been different. They win, and they say 'Let’s go to work.'”