In a rare occurrence for the Eastern Alamance High varsity football team, the Eagles hit the road Friday night for the first round of the NCHSAA 3A East Region state playoffs. EAHS traveled to Rocky Mount to take on the Gryphons of the Big East Conference, but the Eagles proved to be unfazed by their unfamiliar surroundings, dominating on both sides of the ball for a 42-28 triumph.
“Usually in the playoffs (in November) you’re riding, and it’s dark. And here we are and the sun is shining,” Eastern head coach John Kirby said moments after the win. “We’re glad we’re playing, and we’re so glad that we got a season in. Six months ago, we never thought that would happen. I’m glad for our seniors. What is better than spring football?”
Although the Eagles gave up three freak touchdowns to Rocky Mount on two kickoff returns and a late defensive score, EAHS controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and shut out the Gryhons offense over the course of the second half. In fact, Eastern allowed Rocky Mount just one offensive touchdown all night, while scoring six themselves.
“We feel like we played well. But we feel like we made a lot of mistakes in special teams. We gave them 21 (points), we felt like,” Kirby explained. “They say if you peak at the right time, good things can happen. I thought we played as well tonight as we’ve played all year.”
The impressive triumph propels the 6-1 Eagles into the second round, and a rematch with their biggest rival. Western Alamance defeated Terry Sanford 38-13 in a first round matchup in Fayetteville, which sets up a second showdown in less than a month between the Eagles and the Warriors next Friday night in Elon.
Of course, the second time around, the stakes are much larger. For the winner lies a berth in the East Regional championship game against either Havelock or Pittsboro Northwood.
Eastern took the opening kickoff Friday night, and despite a bad snap on the first play that had to be quickly grounded by quarterback Hunter Douglas, the Eagles quickly got on the move. On the second play from scrimmage, Douglas dropped back and found Darius Kane behind the Rocky Mount secondary along the left sideline. Douglas dropped a perfect pass into Kane’s hands and the Eagles had a 48-yard gain to the Rocky Mount 45.
From there EAHS got its ground game going, as a pair of carries by Quinton Idley gained a first down. Following a Douglas run inside the 10 and a 9-yard Idley run to push the Eagles near the goal line, Idley burst in from one yard out for a quick 7-0 Eastern lead at the 9:49 mark of the opening quarter.
In all, Eastern marched more than 80 yards on seven plays to take the early lead. Unfortunately for the Eagles, however, they got their first taste of Rocky Mount return specialist McKenly Hines on the ensuing play, as the Gryphons senior standout took the kickoff all the way from 92 yards out to tie the game at 7-7.
The big plays continued moments later, as Eastern regained possession and Douglas hit Kane with a 55-yard touchdown reception, which gave the Eagles a 14-7 lead. The touchdown advantage for the Eagles would hold through the first quarter, as the EAHS defense twice forced three-and-outs from the Rocky Mount offense.
Early in the second quarter the Eagles found the end zone again, as Idley climaxed a long scoring march by the visitors with a 2-yard carry across the goal line. Emilyn Krans’ extra point gave Eastern a 21-7 advantage in the early minutes of the second quarter.
After Rocky Mount pushed into Eastern territory on its ensuing offensive possession, the Eagles got a big play from defensive standout River Faulkner. Faulkner burst through the Gryphons offensive line and crunched quarterback Stephone Jones in the backfield. Faulkner lost his helmet in the exchange, but his key tackle pushed Rocky Mount back to the EAHS 48. David Bunker then broke up a Gryphons pass play, and the home squad was once again forced to punt.
The Eagles were pinned back at their own 3 by a Rocky Mount punt, but McCall brought the visitors from Mebane out to the 26 with a 23-yard run on first down. From there the EAHS drive stalled, and a good punt by Eastern drove the Gryphons back to their own 29. However, following an unsportsmanlike penalty on a hit out of bounds along the Rocky Mount sideline, the Gryphons pushed into scoring position. A pass from Jones to Hines got Rocky Mount to the Eastern 14-yard-line, and Elijah Battle scored on the next play to pull the Gryphons within 21-14 with just 1:34 remaining in the first half.
Starting at their own 30, the Eagles picked up a first down on the ground, and then got a huge play from junior wide receiver Hunter Westbrooks. On a first down play, Westbrooks caught a pass along the left-hand side of the field, worked through a Rocky Mount would-be tackle, and broke free near midfield. Running to his right, Westbrooks broke through another Gryphons tackler around the Rocky Mount 30, and raced towards the right sideline. Continuing his push ahead, Westbrooks broke free of a third Rocky Mount tackle attempt, then turned back to his left and cleared his way to the end zone.
“Unbelievable (play) - it’s just good coaching,” Kirby joked of Westbrooks’ outstanding effort. “He hadn’t scored all year. That was a little bit of will - him wanting to get in the end zone. Him smelling it, and not going to be denied.”
Westbrooks’ brilliant 56-yard touchdown gave the Eagles a 28-14 lead with under a minute left in the half, but it proved to be brief. Krans squibbed the ball on the ensuing kickoff back to the Gryphons, but Hines fielded the kick and broke free once again down the right sideline. Hines went all the way from 55 yards out for his second kickoff return touchdown of the half with only nine seconds on the clock, and the teams went into halftime with the Eagles leading, 28-21.
The Eastern defense came out with a purpose to start the second half, pushing the Gryphons backwards and forcing a three-and-out. The Eagles offense took possession at the Rocky Mount 49-yard line, and quickly pushed its way to another touchdown.
Following a quick slant over the middle to Ce’Darion Williams, which earned EAHS a first down at the Rocky Mount 35, the Eagles faced a 4th-and-5. The Eagles made the decision to go for it, and Douglas connected with Chase Woody on a swing pass to get the first down near the 20. Douglas took care of things himself on the next play, scrambling down to the RMHS 7. Two plays later, Idley crashed into the end zone from one yard out, and the Eagles had a commanding 35-21 advantage with 6:42 remaining in the third quarter.
Carter Stallings recovered a fumble moments later for the Eagles to set up another potential EAHS score, but the Gryphons came up with a big defensive play of their own, as Keondre Manning came up with an interception on a scrambling Douglas pass near the goal line. Rocky Mount had the ball as the game entered the fourth quarter, but the Eagles got it back on an interception of their own, as Will Burnette came up with a pick along the right sideline at the RMHS 29-yard line.
On the very next play, Douglas rolled to his right and found a wide open Hunter Westbrooks down the sideline. Westbrooks’ 29-yard touchdown all but ended the competitive phase of the game, as the Eagles held a 42-21 cushion at the 11:41 mark of the final period.
“I thought our offensive front played well,” said Kirby. “I thought our running backs played hard. I thought our quarterback played well tonight. He got sacked a couple of times - he’s got to get rid of the ball - but he stood in there and delivered some big-time throws in some key situations.”
Evan Powell intercepted a pass on Rocky Mount’s next offensive possession, and a long run by Idley pushed the ball back deep into Gryphons territory. Although a touchdown by McCall was called back due to holding, the poor field position for Rocky Mount kept them from making a meaningful comeback as the final minutes wound off the clock. The game’s final score came on a strip, as Rocky Mount defender Dar’Savius Williams ripped the ball away from Idley as the Eagles were running out the clock, and raced 55 yards the other way for a Rocky Mount touchdown. But that score only made the final score look closer than it really was, as the Eagles overwhelmed the Gryphons defensively with a near-flawless effort in the second half.
“I thought our defense played well,” said Kirby. “They did a good job of battling back. Going into it, we thought if we could make them throw it we had a chance. They started throwing it long, and our secondary did an outstanding job.
Douglas finished the evening 12-of-21 passing for the Eagles with 263 passing yards and three passing scores, while both Idley and McCall finished with over 100 rushing yards. Idley had 21 carries for 121 yards and three touchdowns, while McCall had 15 carries for 109 yards. Westbrooks had five receptions for 103 yards and two touchdowns, while Kane added three catches for 119 yards and a touchdown. Evan Powell led the way defensive for the Eagles with 12 tackles, while Jackson Stokes added 10 tackles.
So now the Eagles get their rematch with Western Alamance. But the good news is that the Eagles seem to be peaking at the right time, and will carry plenty of confidence across Alamance County next weekend for what figures to be a highly-spirited, emotional battle.
“Sometimes you get what you wish for. We’d said that we’d wish we’d get to play them again, and now we do,” Kirby said of Western Alamance. “The thing is, we’ve got a lot respect for their program, and I feel like they respect ours as well. I think it will be a great football game. It will be a great atmosphere. And we get to play one more week in the playoffs.”
“I feel like our team has gotten better,” Kirby continued. “We’re young in a bunch of spots. If you look at our offensive line, our center is a sophomore. We’ve got three sophomores on our offensive front, and we’re starting two freshmen on defense right now. I think it looks good, and we’ve just got to continue to work to get better. I’m hoping we are (peaking at the right time). I thought we played better today than we did last weekend (against McMichael). Now, last weekend, blame it on the weather. Blame it on whatever. I hope we are. But the thing is, we made some mistakes. We’ll clean them up, and hopefully we’ll be better next week.”