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STANHOPE — Brian Foster detests repeat games against 3-A Big East Conference opponents in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association football postseason.
Add Friday’s second-round game against Northern Nash as another reason why that is the case.
Playing with nothing to lose, the Knights took advantage of Southern Nash’s sloppiness in the first half to arrive at halftime tied before taking the opening drive of the second half for a touchdown and a seven-point lead midway through the third quarter.
But behind another yeoman effort from senior running back Quinton Cooley and crucial mistakes by Northern Nash in the fourth quarter, the Firebirds scored 22 unanswered points to return to the third round of the postseason with a 42-27 victory.
Southern Nash, the No. 1 seed in the 3-A East bracket, remained unbeaten and won its first 13 games of the year for just the second time in school history dating back to 1990. Northern Nash, the No. 8 seed, had its season ended at 8-5.
The Firebirds will now face Fayetteville Terry Sanford at home next week after the No. 4 Bulldogs eliminated No. 5 seed Rocky Mount 35-21 in other third-round action.
“The biggest thing was the turnovers,” Foster said. “I think at halftime, they had like 85 or 90 (actually 97) yards of offense, but they had 20 points. You can’t turn the ball over at the 20 and 30 and then the 5. You can’t do that. But they did that a couple of times for us too, and that’s what sort of got us going.”
Cooley, on his way to another night of making the above average look routine, had five of Southern’s six TDs en route to a 229-yard showing on 32 carries. He darted 38 yards for a score off a counter on the Firebirds’ opening possession, and for a moment, it appeared as if it would be business as usual.
It was anything but.
Northern Nash’s Amir Pittman returned the ensuing kickoff to the Southern Nash 3-yard line in a harbinger of things to come. Dangerous dual-threat quarterback Kameron Williams quickly darted in from three yards out, and once Southern Nash fumbled away the football on its next possession, the Firebirds couldn’t contain Williams on a bootleg down by the goal line. Once the PAT was added, Southern Nash trailed 13-6.
Hampering the Firebirds against the Northern Nash read option was the loss of senior 360-pound defensive tackle Allen Langley to an ankle injury in the first quarter.
But Cooley converted a pair of fourth-and-goal plays into touchdowns to give the Firebirds a 20-13 lead with 4:40 left before halftime. That didn’t last, as Pittman gashed the Firebirds’ defense for a 74-yard gain down to the 1. Pittman finished the drive one play later to ensure a tie game at the half.
Receiving to start the second half, the Knights confidently moved the ball down the field and ended the drive with a 10-yard dash from Austin Curtis up the middle. At that point, Southern Nash found itself reeling as it stared at a 27-20 deficit.
“I just think we made too many mistakes at crucial times,” Northern Nash head coach Andrew Farriss said. “We just kind of gave them some stuff. It was just one of those situations, a game, where it was whoever beat themselves. I feel like that’s kind of what we did tonight.”
Trailing by a touchdown, the Firebirds were forced to punt back to Northern Nash. But the defense held in three plays, and a dropped punt snap set Southern Nash up from the 11. Cooley paid it off with a 16-yard scamper on the first play of the fourth quarter and added the 2-point conversion to put the Firebirds up 28-27 with 11:51 remaining.
Southern Nash’s defense still needed to come up with one or two more stops and did so with 6:59 to go. Junior defensive end Terence Raspberry fell on a Northern Nash fumble, which promptly led to Cooley’s fifth rushing TD from 18 yards away.
“The only thing I saw was the ball going in the air, and I just chased after it,” Raspberry said. “I saw it pop out from the quarterback, so I just picked it up and dropped him on his back.”
Senior quarterback Matt Foster ran 41 yards for a score to put it away with just 73 seconds to go.
As Northern Nash drove for a possible go-ahead score with 7:06 to go, Brian Foster went to the ground and was checked on by the Southern Nash trainers and members of the coaching staff. He assured them he was fine, and later said he hadn’t been feeling well all day. Foster coached the remainder of the game and again affirmed after the game that he was OK.
“We’ve been in close games and we’ve been in tough games,” Foster said. “I think our kids believe in what we do. They know at some point, we can have a big play. And then on defense, it’s just a matter of we’ve got to do a better job of following our keys.”