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With the game still very much up for grabs and a dangerous Eastern Alamance offense just itching to get the ball back, Southern Nash put the football in the safest possible place — in the hands of senior running back Quinton Cooley.
The 5-foot-8, 195-pound senior, whose teammates call him “The Beast,” lived up to that moniker in Friday’s North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A East final. Cooley, who will graduate later this month and enroll at Wake Forest University, penned another chapter in an incredible career with 344 yards on 47 carries — including 10 straight touches on a time-killing drive in the fourth quarter — to send Southern Nash to a 32-29 victory and its first state championship game.
“Everybody calls me ‘The Beast, so I guess I’m ‘The Beast,”” Cooley said. “I’ve got a whole bunch of power behind me so I just keep on running. I ain’t going to let one person bring me down, it’s going to have to be the whole team.”
It often seemed like the whole Eastern Alamance defense was on Cooley’s back at times.
“We definitely had to have more than one person to the ball,” Eagles sophomore linebacker Joey Teixeira said. “We had to wrap up and sometimes we didn’t wrap up and he got away.”
Cooley happily displayed the NCHSAA 3-A East Region championship plaque after the game, but quickly reminded: “Yeah, it feels very good but we’ve got one more game to go.”
The Firebirds (15-0), seeded No. 1 in the East, will face West champion and No. 5 seed Charlotte Catholic — a 56-49 seven-overtime victor over No. 10 Kings Mountain in the West final Friday — for the NCHSAA 3-A title next Saturday, Dec. 14, at 3 p.m. at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh.
Eastern Alamance, the No. 3 seed in the East, lost for the first time in 15 games and is still seeking its first state championship.
“We’re proud of where we are,” Eagles veteran coach John Kirby said. “We’d like to get over that hump and try to win a state championship. It felt like this was a chance and, who knows? The state championship game might have been tonight.”
Firebirds head coach Brian Foster didn’t see the end of the game. Just as the Eagles scored a touchdown in the waning seconds of the third quarter, Foster collapsed on the field and was down for several minutes. He was carted off the field and was taken by ambulance to Nash General Hospital. Foster was reportedly in good condition after the fainting episode, which was attributed to high blood pressure.
The incident galvanized the Firebirds, who were clinging to a 25-22 lead with 22 seconds to play in the third quarter. The teams would trade TDs in the fourth quarter, the Eagles' score coming with 5:37 left.
Eastern Alamance tried a sort of onside kick, but the boot from senior kicker Jackson Poteat was a line drive right at Southern Nash junior Chason Royal, who gathered it in and fell down on the 50-yard line.
The Eagles still had three timeouts left so Southern Nash was either going to have to score again or eat up all the clock. The Firebirds did the latter and Eastern Alamance never saw the ball again.
Senior quarterback Matt Foster handed the ball to his close friend nine straight times and each time Cooley smashed through would-be Eastern Alamance tacklers and moved Southern Nash closer to the goal line.
But with the clock showing less than two minutes to play, Eastern Alamance started using its timeouts.
On the 10th play of the drive, Southern Nash faced a fourth and 1 from the Eagles 6. Cooley bashed his way inside the 1 and that was it. With no timeouts left, the Eagles helplessly watched as Southern Nash lined up in the victory formation and Foster took a knee as the clock ran out.
“I feel good giving him the ball anytime!” Matt Foster said. “I don’t care if it’s third and 20, I’ll be fine with giving him the ball. He’s the best running back I’ve ever seen!”
Cooley scored three touchdowns on runs of 1, 62 and 44 yards but the biggest one of the night for Southern Nash was the one he didn’t score. Senior Daylon Whitley, who has played sparingly at fullback all season after moving to inside linebacker, got the ball on third and 1 from the Eastern Alamance 21-yard line. With the Eagles defense reflexively going after Cooley on each snap, Whitley took the handoff from Foster and sprinted toward the left pylon, outrunning the closest Eastern Alamance defender.
Senior placekicker Evan Barnes nailed the extra-point kick for a 32-22 lead with 7:02 left.
The Firebirds had the ball for 10:35 in the fourth quarter but the Eagles made the most of their 83 seconds of possession in the period. After senior Elijah Burnette’s 43-yard kickoff return gave Eastern Alamance the ball near midfield, the Eagles gained one first down to move to the Firebirds’ 35.
On second and 10, senior quarterback Austin Bryant found A.J. Camuto on a deep ball down the middle for six points.
That was the third long scoring pass thrown by Bryant, who completed 9-of-19 passes for 219 yards. He hit sophomore Hunter Westbrooks on a 43-yard TD connection in the first quarter and then found another sophomore, Cedarion Williams, on an 84-yard hookup in the second. Bryant also hooked up with Lanier Rice on a 16-yard TD toss at the end of the third quarter.
But Bryant also threw a pair of interceptions, both of which ended up in the hands of Firebirds sophomore Jackson Vick. The first pick set up a 21-yard field goal by Barnes in the second quarter. Vick’s second theft came at the Southern Nash 5-yard line, ending what had been a promising drive.
But perhaps the biggest momentum swing came on the first series of the second half with the score tied 15-15. The Eagles, who won the coin toss but elected to receive the second-half kickoff, faced a third and 4 and their own 24. However, Bryant couldn’t connect with Rice. Instead of punting, Kirby elected to go for it.
Under heavy pressure, Bryant’s pass wobbled into the left flat nowhere near the closest Eastern Alamance receiver.
“You know, you can’t make mistakes against a team like that,” Kirby said. “They’re going to make plays without us helping them. I felt like we played good football. I felt like we played hard. We flew to the ball. It’s just tough. It’s just a tough situation.”
The Firebirds took over but couldn’t move the ball. Barnes, who had missed time with illness earlier in the postseason, trotted onto the field and drilled a season-long 42-yard field goal to give the Firebirds the lead — and the eventual winning margin.
“We felt like it was going to come down to both defenses,” Southern Nash offensive coach Brian Batchelor said. “When you’ve got two offenses that can score like that, it usually is a defensive battle and we felt like, with what we do, to not turn the ball over and to not have penalties, we felt like we could be in a position to win in the fourth quarter.”
The Firebirds had one turnover — a Matt Foster interception late in the first half — and had just six penalties for 66 yards.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock and Southern Nash fans spilled onto the field to celebrate with the players, the realization finally hit that the Firebirds were headed to “the ‘ship.”
“It feels good,” Matt Foster assured.
Just good, not great?
“Yeah, but we’ve got one more game,” he reminded.