Friday night brought a familiar foe to Mebane, as Eastern Alamance’s varsity football team faced off against Havelock in the second round of the NCHSAA 3A state playoffs. It was the fifth time in the last 12 years that the Eagles and the Rams have challenged each other in the postseason, and the second time in the last three seasons.
Eastern’s slogan this season is “Find a Way”. And once again the Eagles did just that, playing a near-flawless game defensively, with some big plays on offense and special teams sprinkled in, on their way to a 21-6 victory, which propels EAHS into the third round of the playoffs. The top-seeded Eagles will next host Fayetteville’s Westover High School, who defeated North Brunswick 40-21 Friday night in a matchup of the region’s No. 8 and No. 9 seeds. The win was Eastern’s ninth straight and improved the Eagles to 9-1 on the season, while Havelock’s season ends at 7-4.
“I thought that playing them (Havelock) in the second round was like - wow, this is not a second round game,” EAHS head coach John Kirby said after the game. “Typically it’s been a third or fourth round, or a Regional final game. I thought it was two great programs playing tonight. It was two good teams playing. I’m proud of our players. We didn’t turn the ball over. I thought Hunter Douglas hung in there. He took a few hits, but overall I thought we did a good job all the way around.”
Although Eastern has had its way with the Rams on the road in Havelock, winning three straight times - including twice in the East Regional finals in 2009 and 2010 - Havelock won the two schools’ only prior meeting in Mebane, earning a commanding 63-28 victory on their way to the state finals in 2014. But this night belonged to the Eagles.
“We knew they were good,” Kirby said of Havelock. “And you know, I think any time you play that group, just because they’ve got Havelock across their chest, you’ve got more respect for them. Just because of the program that they have - just their program. I feel like that’s an intimidation factor at a lot of places. I can’t say enough about our players. They (Havelock) lost 22 seniors a year ago. Havelock will be back next year.”
On the first offensive series of the night, Eastern made its presence felt through the air. Quarterback Hunter Douglas connected with fellow senior wide receiver Kasen McCawley down the right sideline on a third down play for a 51-yard gain from the EAHS 28 down to the Havelock 21. From there, Josh Murray converted another third down on a draw play for a first-and-goal at the Havelock 6, and Murray finished off the march on the following play with a 6-yard touchdown run. Murray’s score gave Eastern a 7-0 lead just three and a half minutes into the game.
After the EAHS defense stopped Havelock near midfield and partially blocked a Rams punt, the Eagles embarked on a 10-play, 77-yard drive that ate up much of the remainder of the first quarter. A series of runs by Murray pushed the Eagles into Havelock territory, and a third down pass completion to Hunter Westbrooks moved Eastern even closer, to the Rams 33.
Facing another third down, the Eagles went to some trickery to get back on the scoreboard. From the 33, Douglas pitched right to McCawley, who turned back left and nailed a wide-open Murray for a 33-yard touchdown pass. Karsyn Johnson’s extra point gave the Eagles a 14-0 lead with 1:51 left in the opening period.
Eastern’s 14-0 lead would hold into halftime, as the Eagles and Rams played a back-and-forth defensive stalemate in the second quarter. Havelock picked up a couple first downs on its next offensive possession to move into Eastern Alamance territory, but the Eagles defense stiffened up, rejecting the Rams’ attempt to get on the board. On a fourth down play from the Eagles 33, Ziere Ray came through with a key sack, turning the ball back over to Eastern.
It appeared that Eastern was about to take a three-touchdown lead when McCauley got behind Havelock cornerback R.J. Manning and made a brilliant 28-yard leaping catch, which set the Eagles up with a first-and-goal from the Rams 1. But Havelock came through with a gritty goal line stand. After Ce’Darion Williams lost two yards on a pitch to the right and Murray was brought down by Jaiden Nesbitt for another two-yard loss, Douglas attempted a quarterback keeper, but could only gain one yard to the Rams 4. On fourth down the Eagles went back to Murray, but he was stuffed one yard short of the end zone.
Havelock missed a golden opportunity to get its first touchdown when wide receiver William Hyman got behind the Eagles secondary and was wide open for a pass from quarterback Andrew Frazier, but the pass from the end zone was overthrown. Eastern took over at their own 37 with 1:56 left in the first half, but a sack by Terrell Barksdale and a tipped pass by Javonte Vereen allowed the Rams to stay within 14-0 at halftime.
“I thought we started off - I felt like we were really focused coming in. We took that opening drive and went down the field and scored. Then we get it again and we run a trick play to put it in there. We’re hitting on all cylinders,” Kirby explained. “I thought Havelock did a great job of putting pressure on us. They did some stuff to stop the run, and then they kind of locked down our receivers a little bit and put some pressure on Hunter. It was then a defensive stalemate.”
The third quarter was much of the same, as the two teams traded punts and big plays on defense. McCawley ended one Havelock drive with a leaping interception on a deep pass, while Barksdale and Edward Seward ended an Eastern drive with a sack on a Douglas scramble.
Early in the fourth quarter, Havelock’s offense - hamstrung all night by Eastern’s aggressive defense - finally came through. Starting at their own 17, the Rams took advantage of an EAHS pass interference penalty and a pass from Frazier to Jason Moore to move into Eagles territory as the third quarter concluded. Ray and Will Burnette had a combined sack for Eastern, forcing Havelock into a third-and-long at their own 47, but Frazier connected with Lebron Sharpe on a swing pass in the left flats for a gain of over 30 yards.
A couple of runs by Sharpe set the Rams up with a first-and-goal at the EAHS 2, and Frazier ended the drive with a 2-yard option keeper dive into the end zone. The Eagles blocked the extra point, but Havelock had pulled within 14-6 with 9:22 left in the game.
The Rams defense came through with another big stop, setting the visitors up for a potential chance to tie the game. But Joey Teixeira came through with arguably the biggest play of the game - an excellent punt that pinned Havelock all the way back at their own 9.
“I thought the key to the game was Joey’s punt,” Kirby said. “They had just scored and missed the extra point, and then we get stopped and Joey booms about a 70-yard punt or whatever to put them a long way to go. To me, I thought that was the key to the game.”
On a third down pass, McCawley picked up his second interception of the second half, and the Eagles had a golden opportunity to put the game away. Starting at the Rams 35 with 4:57 left, the Eagles got a pair of first downs on runs by Murray to move to the 15. EAHS began forcing the Rams to use their timeouts with a series of runs, and with just under two minutes to play, on a 4th-and-4 at the 9, Douglas dropped back and connected with Antoine Pugh on a quick slant to give the Eagles a 21-6 lead with 1:35 left.
Havelock tried one last-gasp effort to get back on the scoreboard, but Eastern’s defense came up with another collection of key plays. After Jamar Burton brought Frazier down for a sack to force fourth down, McCawley picked up his third interception of the second half, allowing the Eagles to go into the victory set and run out the clock.
Douglas finished the night 14-of-24 passing for 177 yards and one touchdown pass, while McCawley added his 33-yard touchdown to go along with his three interceptions. Murray had 26 carries for 95 rushing yards and another touchdown, while McCawley led the way through the air for the Eagles with 98 receiving yards on four catches.
“Kasen McCawley is a gamer. He’s not big in stature, but he’s one heck of a football player. He’s a competitor, and I thought he did a great job tonight,” said Kirby.
Kirby credited Eastern’s experience on defense for its stellar effort. Along with holding the Rams to just one touchdown, the Eagles handcuffed Havelock’s highly-touted junior tight end/wide receiver Javonte Vereen, an emerging prospect who has multiple scholarship offers, including a recent scholarship offer from national powerhouse Georgia. Eastern held Vereen to just two catches on the night. Will Burnette led the Eagles with 14 combined tackles (nine solo, five assisted), while Joey Teixeira added 12 tackles (three solo, nine assisted).
“(Vereen) is a big-time player that got an offer by Georgia this week. They don’t throw those things out - they’re No. 1 in the country for a reason. But I think our guys kind of lived up to the challenge,” Kirby said. “Looking at this game tonight, Jake Libbey started at Havelock in 2019. The two linebackers, Joey Teixiera and Will Burnette, started at inside linebacker. Ce’Darion Williams made plays at Havelock in 2019. So we’ve got some guys who have been in it, and who have got quality time, and experience you can’t beat.”