Eastern Alamance’s varsity football team gave it all they had in Friday night’s showdown with perennial 2A powerhouse Reidsville, in a game that had more of the feeling of a third or fourth round state playoff battle than an early September matchup.
Reidsville, who has the most NCHSAA state championships in the history of North Carolina’s high school football ranks, looked as though they were going to run the Eagles off the field in the early going, breaking out to a 14-0 lead before the game was two minutes old.
“I think we were kind of in awe when we came down here,” EAHS head coach John Kirby said shortly after the game. “That’s a great football team, and a great football program. They’ve got all these state championships. I don’t know that our guys have ever backed down from anybody, but I think in the back of their mind, they were thinking, ‘Can we play with these guys?’’
True to their nature, the scrappy Eagles fought their way back, taking the lead early in the fourth quarter, and taking possession late with an opportunity to potentially run out the clock.
But a series of mishaps killed Eastern’s chances of coming away from Reidsville with a rare road victory on the Rams’ storied home field.
Reidsville came through with four interceptions over the game’s final five minutes, securing a 35-28 victory that dropped the Eagles to 3-1. Reidsville improved to 3-1.
“You can’t turn the ball over and expect to win. We had quite a few turnovers,” Kirby said.
Reidsville took the opening kickoff and drove the length of the field, primarily through the air, to take an early 7-0 lead. A long third down pass from A.J. Lee to Tamir Johnson set up a 35-yard touchdown pass from Lee to Que’shyne Flippen.
Eastern fumbled the ensuing kickoff, and Reidsville had the ball back at their own 33-yard line. On the first play following the recovered fumble, Rams running back Jeemiah Redd found a seam and broke right for a 33-yard touchdown, which gave Reidsville a 14-0 lead at the 10:07 mark of the first quarter.
Starting at their own 26, the Eagles regrouped and began their own quick march that resulted in their first touchdown of the night. A 25-yard run by Josh Murray set up a pass to Tristan Keck that moved the ball to the Reidsville 39. Rolling right on the next play, EAHS quarterback Jason Ball connected with wide receiver Jasaih Thomas, who went out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Murray finished off the 74-yard drive with a 1-yard thrust across the goal line to pull Eastern within a score at 14-7.
The Eagles caught a lucky break when Gage Parsons recovered a Reidsville fumble, but the Rams returned the favor moments later, as Aidan Mansfield picked off a Ball pass for an interception. Following an encroachment penalty against the Eagles, which moved the ball to the EAHS 21, Lee connected with Jaden McCain for a 21-yard touchdown and a 21-7 Reidsville lead.
Eastern’s defense got a key stop as the first quarter wound down - aided by a Reidsville illegal block penalty - that seemed to settle the unit down. After a miserable first quarter defensively, EAHS collected itself and held the Rams off the scoreboard in the second and third quarters.
The Eagles went to the ground for an important 58-yard touchdown drive in the early minutes of the second quarter. Murray got a key first down on a second effort, and Samuel raced to another EAHS first down at the Rams 34. Following a botched snap and an 11-yard loss, which pushed Eastern back to the 45, Ball hit Thomas for a 23-yard gain to the 22. Eastern also took advantage of a roughing the passer penalty on the same play, which gave the visitors from Mebane a first down at the Reidsville 11. Murray veered left and broke two tackles for an 11-yard touchdown on the following play, making the score 21-14 with 9:12 left in the first half.
Eagles linebacker standout Payton Wright partially blocked a punt after EAHS stopped the Rams on the home team’s next possession, and Eastern got solid field position at midfield. EAHS would be forced to punt, but the field position came in huge moments later, as Reidsville had a high snap on a punt attempt after the Eagles stopped them on three plays. The Eagles took advantage of a Reidsville face mask penalty, and Murray scored on a 2-yard run. Karsyn Johnson’s extra point tied the game 21-21 with 23.3 seconds left before halftime.
“They jumped on us 14-0, and we came back and tied it,” Kirby said. “We were tied at halftime, and we felt like we’d played the worst half that we’ve played all year, with the mistakes that we had made. We just challenged our guys to come back and play hard in the second half.”
The two teams played to a defensive stalemate in the third quarter, trading punts back and forth, but Eastern got a drive going late in the period. A series of runs by Tyrek Samuel moved EAHS to the Reidsville 11, and two more runs by Murray gave Eastern a third-and-goal at the 1 as the third quarter moved into the fourth quarter.
On the first play of the final period, Samuel made a trucking second effort to cross the goal line and give the Eagles a 28-21 lead with 11:51 left in the game.
Midway through the fourth quarter, McCain caught a pass for Reidsville that brought the Rams into EAHS territory. Another pass completion to Flippen was good for 33 yards, which set up a 1-yard touchdown by Redd at the 5:20 mark. Reidsville had a chance to tie the game with a successful extra point, but Cole McGinnis came up with a huge block for Eastern, which preserved EAHS’s lead, 28-27.
With just under five minutes remaining, Eastern attempted a pass that was intercepted by Reidsville’s Dionte Neal at the EAHS 46-yard line. The Eagles came up with another big stop on defense, and had the ball with under four minutes remaining.
On a third-and-13 at the EAHS 23 yard line, Ball dropped back and attempted to throw over the middle. His pass was intercepted by Mansfield - his second of the night. Mansfield brought the ball down to the Eastern 11-yard line, and the Rams took advantage of an uncharacteristic EAHS unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to draw even closer to the go-ahead score.
“I thought our defense played extremely well,” Kirby said. “Offensively, we couldn’t get anything going on. They made some extra adjustments. They put some extra people in the box. We couldn’t throw, and they stopped the run. And when you stop the run, you stop the Eagles tonight. I think they exposed us, because our attitude got us some tonight, too. We had a couple people throwing helmets and stuff. We don’t do that stuff. They went out on their own. They were individuals, and we can’t do that. You’ve got to be a team guy, and that’s something we’re going to talk about for the next two weeks.”
With a first down at the Eastern Alamance 11, Lee executed a perfect quarterback draw on the ensuing play, and the Rams took the lead 33-28 with just 2:55 left on the clock. A pass from Landon Denny to Kendre Harrison out of the fabled “polecat” formation on the extra point attempt made the score 35-28 in favor of Reidsville.
The Eagles were faced with a fourth down at the 2:37 mark, and Ball was intercepted again, this time by Neal for his second pick of the night. EAHS came through with a defensive stop, using all their timeouts and regaining possession at their own 42 with 1:24 left for one last shot.
EAHS got as close as the Reidsville 38 on completions to Trynton Wiley and Keck, but Neal grabbed his third interception on a third-and-15 with only 5.7 seconds left, wrapping up the victory for the Rams.
Ball finished the game 6-of-23 passing for 93 yards with five interceptions, but it was an excellent learning experience for the junior signal-caller against elite competition.
“Jason tried to force some things, and that wasn’t good. But you know what? I feel like he probably grew up tonight,” Kirby said.
Samuel had 81 rushing yards on 17 carries for the Eagles, while Murray had 73 rushing yards on 22 carries. Both scored twice on the ground, accounting for all four EAHS touchdowns. Thomas led Eastern Alamance in receiving with three catches for 48 yards, while Wiley had two catches for 25 yards, and Keck one catch for 10 yards.
Defensively, Eastern was led by Wright’s 18 tackles (nine solo, nine assisted) while McGinnis (12 tackles) and Aiden Seagroves (11 tackles) were also in double-digits in takedowns. Wright and Javontae Poteat each contributed a sack.
Eastern will now have a week off before opening Central Conference play on the evening of Friday, September 23 at rival Western Alamance. Given the way the fourth quarter shook out against Reidsville, the Eagles should have an extra jump in their step when they take the field at Elon against the Warriors.
“Coming into it - you want to win them all, but 3-1 coming out of our non-conference schedule. We’re not happy with where we are, but things are going in the right direction,” Kirby said. “We’ve got two weeks to think about it (the Reidsville loss and taking on Western Alamance).”