It’s always a battle when Eastern Alamance faces off against Western Alamance on the football field, and this year’s edition of the Alamance County rivalry showdown was no different.
Eastern Alamance trailed early in the fourth quarter against a fired-up Western Alamance squad, but the Eagles scored a key touchdown down the stretch and held on for a 22-16 victory, which gives EAHS a huge leg up in the Central Conference race.
At 4-1 overall and 1-0 in league play, EAHS now has a key tiebreaker over Western Alamance, and will be well-positioned to repeat as conference champs if they can defeat Williams next Friday night at home in Mebane.
“What a game. What a series. What an outcome,” Eastern head coach John Kirby said shortly after the game concluded. “I thought Western Alamance came out and they played us hard, I thought their defense swarmed, and they caused us to make some mistakes that that we typically haven't been making. And I think that's a credit to those guys. It was a hard fought game. I don't know. It’s just a big rivalry between us, and hats off to Coach (Jeff) Snuffer and his group, because I thought they played extremely well. We battled back and we did we had to do to win a football game.”
It was a particularly challenging week for the Eagles, given the fact that one of their former teammates, Devin Clark, was tragically murdered last week in Orange County.
Clark wasn’t playing for the Eagles this season, but he was the team’s leading receiver in 2021. His loss was most definitely felt in the EAHS locker room throughout the week, as the veteran Eagle players mourned the loss of a friend and a teammate.
The Eagles had to come together to stave off a fierce challenge on the home field of their biggest rival, and it wasn’t pretty. But they did what they had to do, and now have the inside lane to winning yet another league title.
“You know, I can't say enough. I mean, we had a tough week this week,” Kirby said. “These guys are resilient, though. They bounce back. We faced some adversity not only tonight, but throughout the week. I credit our players. I credit our seniors. I credit our guys for just battling and, and I thought we did a really good job of that.”
Western Alamance brought the opening kickoff inside EAHS territory at the Eagles 47-yard line, but the Eastern defense stuffed a fourth down to start offensively at their own 26. But on the Eagles’ first offensive play from scrimmage, quarterback Jason Ball threw a pass in the right flats that was intercepted by Western Alamance cornerback James Newton.
Newton ran the pass back for a “pick six” touchdown, and the ensuing extra point gave the Warriors a 7-0 lead at the 7:59 mark of the first quarter.
Despite the early negative play, Ball battled the Eagles back, throwing a pair of touchdown passes and avoiding any other interceptions the rest of the way. He got help from several EAHS receivers, who would make numerous important receptions to move the chains and keep the Eagles in possession.
“You know, Jason throws a pick six, but then battles back,” Kirby said. “Jason’s got to get some confidence because of the last game that we had (against Reidsville). We had a few interceptions. I don't know that's all on him. We’ve got to make catches. I think if we can make catches and free up some some people from loading the box now a lot - like Western did tonight - then it gives our running game a chance to succeed.”
Eastern shook off Western’s early defensive score by going on a 74-play drive that resulted in the game-tying touchdown. A pair of runs by junior speedster Josh Murray gained 20 yards to the EAHS 46, and the Eagles were aided by a Western Alamance face mask penalty. A swing pass from Ball to sophomore running back Tyrek Samuel in the right flats gained 20 yards, pushing EAHS down to the Warriors 4. Murray scored off left tackle on the following play, but a holding penalty negated the touchdown.
Forced to go an additional 12 yards for the tying score, the Eagles hit paydirt on third down, as Ball rolled right and connected with Jasaih Thomas over the middle of the end zone. Thomas’s touchdown, combined with Karsyn Johnson’s extra point, tied the score at 7-7.
Western Alamance once again got a nice kickoff return, racing out to near midfield. Eastern forced a 4th-and-5 at the EAHS 37-yard line, but a targeting penalty moved the Warriors to the Eastern 24. Western soon faced a 3rd-and-1 at the 14, but junior defensive end standout Javontae Poteat came up with a huge play for the Eagles, getting a big hit for a 4-yard loss and forcing the Warriors to attempt a field goal.
Western Alamance has one of the top junior kickers in the state in Jacob Carter, and he connected on a 35-yard field goal, which gave Western a 10-7 lead with 10:28 left in the first half.
It was the first of three field goals for Carter, which kept Western in the game all the way to the end.
“We knew that if we got into a field goal situation that they had the weapon there,” Kirby said of Carter. “That kid (Carter) is very good player and, you know, he made it happen tonight.”
The Eagles faced a 4th-and-3 at the Western Alamance 45 with approximately three and a half minutes left in the first half and went to Samuel, who has been dominant in the early part of the season. But Western came up with a key defensive stand, stuffed the sophomore talent for no gain.
Western started at their own 45 with 3:27 remaining on the first half clock, and pushed to the Eastern 26 on a series of pass completions from quarterback Evan Kuehnel to Newton and Zack Oakley.
Carter blasted a 43-yard field goal through the pipes with just under 30 seconds remaining in the half, and Western Alamance went into halftime holding a surprising 13-7 lead.
“At halftime I felt like we were frustrated, but they made us frustrated,” Kirby said. “I thought we came out a little bit flat but you know, maybe we weren't flat. Maybe they just hit us in the mouth a little bit.”
Western had a moment where they really frustrated the Eagles in the early moments of the second half, but a crucial call by the officials negated a 76-yard touchdown pass from Kuehnel to Newton.
Starting at their own 41 with just under three minutes gone in the third quarter, the Eagles went to their stellar backfield tandem, as Samuel and Murray each caught passes and carried multiple times each as EAHS pushed to the Western Alamance 26. On third down, Ball hit Murray with a pass in the left flats, and the junior raced all the way down to the 2.
It took Eastern three plays to get in against Western’s tough defensive front, but Samuel pushed across the goal line with exactly 5:00 remaining in the third quarter. Johnson’s vital extra point returned the lead to Eastern, but only by a single point, 14-13.
Western Alamance quickly moved into EAHS’s red zone as the third quarter turned into the fourth quarter. A 34-yard pass from Kuehnel to Newton brought the Warriors down to the Eastern 6, where the Eagles clamped down and forced a stop. Carter came on and connected on his third field goal of the night, and Western held a 16-14 lead with 10:18 remaining in the game.
After Murray brought the kickoff out to the Eastern 40, the junior speedster came through with a nice run, breaking a tackle on his way to the Western Alamance 48. From there, Ball connected with Thomas in the right flats for a 30-yard gain, bringing the Eagles down to the Western 18.
Although the Eagles were pushed back to the Warriors 23 following a penalty, Ball came through with a 23-yard touchdown pass to Trynton Wiley. A two-point conversion by Samuel made the score 22-16 in favor of Eastern with just 8:33 left.
“I thought Josh Murray played his rear end off tonight. I thought that he played very hard, and, you know, Ja (Thomas) missed a couple balls, but then he made a big catch down here to lead us to that score,” said Kirby.
Western Alamance regained the ball and began to move downfield, converting a third down at the EAHS 37 to get in range. Needing a touchdown, the Warriors faced a 4th-and-7 at the Eagles 22-yard line.
Kuehnel dropped back and threw a spiral to senior co-captain Mason Hogsed. Hogsed made a diving effort in the end zone - and some thought he came down with a touchdown reception.
The WAHS crowd cheered loudly for a brief moment before the officials ruled the play incomplete, which gave the Eagles the ball with 4:06 left and a chance to run out the clock.
“You know, there were some big plays,” Kirby said. “They had a touchdown called back. We had a touchdown called back. We felt like we had one on the sideline there as well.”
Western thought the late incomplete call may have potentially cost them a chance to win the game, but Eastern would have a touchdown taken away themselves moments later, as a breathtaking 69-yard sprint by Samuel was called back for holding with just under four minutes to play.
The Eagles punted one last time, but the EAHS defense, which held the Warriors without an offensive touchdown the entire game, made one final stand to claim the victory.
“I have to trust that what the officials said (on Western’s late incomplete pass), but I felt like we had a play over here as well (where a EAHS touchdown was taken away),” Kirby said. “You know, it's a shame that officiating makes those calls that could determine the outcome in a game. And I don't know whether it was or what, but I thought there were plays both ways that that probably could have (affected the outcome). The touchdown that they scored that got called back was a big one. Then, you know, then ours and then of course, the one out of bounds there, too.”
“I don't know if they even out. I guess it depends on what side you're on,” Kirby added. “We’re happy to get out of here with a win. And I know they're disappointed because they'll be talking about that one for a while.”
Ball finished the game 14 of 20 passing for 144 yards and two touchdowns, while Murray finished with 115 rushing yards on 18 carries. Samuel added 48 rushing yards on 12 attempts. Thomas led the Eagles with 53 receiving yards on three catches, while junior Charlie Deacon added 33 yards on four receptions. Payton Wright led Eastern defensively with 15 tackles (9 solo, 6 assisted), while junior Tajon Roberson added 11 tackles (6 solo, 5 assisted).