Eastern Alamance found itself in a dogfight Friday night in the second round of the NCHSAA playoffs, as the Eagles had their hands full with Jacksonville Northside of the Coastal 3A Conference in the friendly confines of Fred Brady Stadium.
Northside, featuring UNC-bound 4-star prospect Ja’Qurious Conley, gave the Eagles quite a battle, playing EAHS to a scoreless tie through one quarter of play, and taking a 7-6 lead over the Eagles at one point in the third quarter.
Put through a gut check for one of the first times all season, Eastern Alamance came through with an offensive onslaught over the game’s final 16 minutes, scoring five successive touchdowns on their way to a 42-13 triumph that propels John Kirby’s squad into the Regional semifinals.
“We’re just happy and proud. We get to move on to round three, and practice on Thanksgiving Day,” Kirby said shortly after the game ended. “Our deal was to practice on Thanksgiving Day. We’re getting to do that.”
Third-seeded Eastern (13-0) will travel to No. 2 seed Havelock (11-1) next Friday night (November 29) for a third round game, with a win advancing the Eagles to the East Regional final the first Friday in December.
Northside showed early on that they had made the two-plus hour trek from Jacksonville meaning business, as they put together a drive on the game’s first offensive possession that pushed inside the EAHS 30. The Monarchs successfully converted a play-action pass on fourth down to extend the drive and move into Eastern territory, but Caleb Hester disrupted a pass for the Eagles on another fourth down play from the EAHS 27.
Eastern put together what appeared to be a solid scoring opportunity, moving downfield on runs by Colby May and a pass to Darius Kane. Another completion to Kane moved the Eagles inside the Northside 15-yard line. The home squad was forced into a 4th and 2 from the Monarchs’ 4-yard line, but Northside jumped offsides on a hard count.
The Eagles were poised to score a touchdown on first and goal from the 1 following another offsides penalty on Northside, but an untimely fumble was recovered by the Monarchs at their own 2.
Northside put together another ground-oriented march, running five straight times for four successive first downs as the first quarter ended scoreless.
Moving to the Eagles’ 44, Northside was finally slowed down, as Hester came through with a key tackle for loss to force a 3rd and 15. A deep ball by the Monarchs was dropped, and Northside was forced to punt.
EAHS started another offensive drive, but Northside defender Donnovan Walker intercepted a tipped pass by Bryant, and the frustrated Eagles had once again given the ball away.
“We had limited possessions (in the first half),” Kirby said. “We took the first one and we fumbled. The second one, we throw an interception.”
The Eastern defense forced Northside into yet another punt, but the EAHS offense was held to a rare three-and-out. The Monarchs pushed deep into Eagles real estate, as a 35-yard pass from Notrae Andrews to Conley moved Northside all the way down to the EAHS 15.
The Monarchs ran three straight running plays, but the Eastern defense was ready, holding Northside to a 4th-and-2 from the 7-yard line as the first half clock wound under three minutes. On a fateful fourth down snap, Eastern stuffed a would-be Northside quarterback sneak, earning back the ball with nearly an entire field between them and the game’s first score.
Bryant quickly went to work, hitting A.J. Camuto for back-to-back first downs. Then Bryant connected with Tyler Ellison and subsequently went back to May on the ground, pushing to the EAHS 45-yard line for a first down. After hitting Lanier Rice for a 5-yard gain to midfield, Bryant again found Camuto, this time for a key 22-yard gain to the Northside 28.
On first down, Bryant went for broke and hit paydirt, nailing a wide-open Kane over the middle of the end zone for a 28-yard touchdown and a 6-0 Eagles lead with exactly one minute to play before halftime. Although the extra point attempt sailed wide left, Eastern held its 6-0 advantage into halftime, with Tyler Pendygraft intercepting a Northside pass on an end-around play in the final 30 seconds.
Eastern got the ball to start the second half, but the Northside defense held off the Eagles. EAHS took a gamble and ran a fake punt on fourth down, but the Monarchs stuffed the play and took over possession. Starting at the Eagles’ 43-yard line, Northside began a march that resulted in their first touchdown of the night.
Pounding the ball on the ground, Conley and the Monarchs pushed inside the Eastern 10-yard line for a first and goal. Another run by Conley moved Northside to the Eastern 4, and two plays later, Andrews snuck across the goal line from one yard out for the Monarchs. A converted extra point gave the visitors from Jacksonville a 7-6 lead with 4:31 left in the third quarter.
“This is the first time we’ve been like this this year,” Kirby said of EAHS’s second half deficit. “Other than the Northeast Guilford game, when we got behind on their opening drive. The brand of football they (Northside) play is limited possessions. You better take advantage of every one of them that you’ve got.”
Trailing in the second half for the first time all season, the Eagles got a clutch kickoff return from Elijah Burnette, who raced 65 yards all the way down to the Northside 25. May climaxed the drive with a winding 11-yard touchdown, which gave EAHS the lead. A subsequent two-point conversion pass from Bryant to Lanier Rice gave the Eagles a 14-7 advantage with 3:23 left in the third quarter.
May’s touchdown gave Eastern the momentum, and would be the first of five touchdowns scored by the Eagles over the final third of the game.
Eastern got a huge defensive stop on Northside’s next possession - keyed by a big second down stop by River Faulkner - to force a Monarchs punt. Starting at Northside’s 45-yard line, Bryant was sacked on second down to force a 3rd-and-13, but the senior quarterback stood strong and came through with a completion to Camuto at the Monarchs’ 25.
Leading 14-7 heading into the fourth quarter, the Eagles were soon faced with a 4th-and-5 at the Northside 20. And once again Bryant came through huge, nailing a leaping Rice along the right sideline, threading the needle between two Northside defenders. Rice raced into the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown, and a 21-7 Eagles lead with 11:15 to play.
The Eagles defense came through with another big stop, with freshman Hudson Faulkner coming up with a huge tackle for loss and Jordan Moore chasing Andrews out of bounds on a third down play. Northside attempted a desperation deep pass on fourth down, but the Eagles deflected it away. Needing to go only 25 yards for another score, May trudged for 11 yards down to the Northside 14. Then Bryant rolled right and connected with Rice yet again. Rice’s 14-yard touchdown - his second in the span of three minutes - gave Eastern a 28-7 lead with 8:43 left.
Rice’s pair of touchdowns were huge for the Eagles given the fact that Kane, Eastern’s leading receiver, was limited in the second half with an injured shoulder. Both of Rice’s scores were set up by Bryant, who avoided Northside’s pass rush and rolled out to avoid trouble. Kane's status for next week's third round contest with Havelock is up in the air.
“Austin does a good job under pressure. He feels pressure, he gets out of pressure, and he makes plays. A.J. and Lanier and those guys, they make plays,” Kirby said. “The receivers - Darius got hurt, and we bounced back and came on.”
Conley provided the game’s biggest single-play highlight on Northside’s next offensive possession - a breathtaking 80-yard touchdown run in which he ran right towards the EAHS sideline, then back left up the middle, and eventually back right down the sideline to the end zone. Conley’s long score pulled Northside within 28-13 at the 8:12 mark. But that was as close as the Monarchs would get.
Bryant hit Rice again for another big gainer, with May providing excellent downfield blocking. Moving inside Northside’s 25, a penalty by the Monarchs got the Eagles even closer, down inside the 10. May finished the drive with an 8-yard touchdown and a 35-13 EAHS advantage.
A big hit by Hudson Faulkner on third and 20 forced a Northside fumble, but the Monarchs recovered. Northside ran a fake punt pass, but the ball bounded away. Eastern got the ball back at the Northside 10 with less than four minutes left, and May settled the issue with his third touchdown run of the second half - a 2-yarder over the goal line - that ended the scoring for the night.
Although the Eagles were burned defensively a few times by Northside’s hard-charging rushing attack, EAHS did what it had to do to move on to the next round. Along with multiple turnovers on downs and Pendygraft’s well-timed interception just before halftime, the Eagles continually swarmed Conley and the Monarchs ball carriers, making runs between the tackles especially painful.
“We faced adversity, and we came back,” Kirby said. “We beat a really good football team tonight. No. 6 (Conley) is special. And by them getting the ball to him, and the scheme that they run, I can’t say enough about them (Northside). But I can’t say enough about our team, too. I thought our offensive front did a great job. Austin did a great job. I thought Colby did well. Boy oh boy, what about our defense? Our defense, they did one heck of a job tonight.”
With the win over Northside, Eastern is now two victories away from returning to the NCHSAA 3A state championship game for the first time in nearly a decade. A win over Havelock next Friday would potentially set up a matchup in the East Region finals with Southern Nash, the top overall seed who Eastern stunned last season 57-55 on the road in the second round.