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In just about any game, Southern Nash High junior Quinton Cooley’s school-record 413 yards rushing would have been the overriding story in Friday’s second-round North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A football playoff matchup with Eastern Alamance.
But on a big stage with exceptional feats on both sides, the Eagles had the final word.
With Southern Nash leading 56-35 with 6:11 to play, Eastern Alamance mounted a furious rally, scoring on its final three possessions and recovering an onside kick along the way en route to pulling off the improbable 57-56 victory in Firebirds Stadium.
Southern Nash, the No. 2 seed and the Big East Conference champion, ended its season with its only loss in 11 games. Eastern Alamance, the No. 7 seed, improved to 10-3 and travels to No. 6 Jacksonville in this week’s third round.
Jacksonville doubled up No. 3 Western Alamance, 56-28, in another 3-A second-round game.
Eastern Alamance junior quarterback Austin Bryant threw for five TDs, including three in the second half, on his way to a 21-for-33 showing for 414 yards.
Cooley, who briefly left the game for Southern Nash late in the first quarter when his left shoulder slightly left the socket, had it put back in and returned to play. Senior Zonovan Knight, an N.C. State University commit, injured his ankle on a first-quarter kickoff and did not return. Before leaving, Knight, the school’s all-time leading rusher, had seven carries for 52 yards.
“I was proud of our kids,” Southern Nash head coach Brian Foster said. “You think what they fought through, and there was a time where two running backs are on the sidelines for multiple plays and we still move the ball and score. I don’t know what Quinton ended up with, but just the fact that he stayed in the game and did what he did is unbelievable. In the end, we just didn’t make the plays when we had a chance.”
The first half was devoid of defense, with the teams combining to score touchdowns on nine of 10 possessions as Southern Nash went into halftime with a 35-28 lead. The only possession not resulting in a score was the Eagles’ final touch to end the half.
Cooley, who had four TDs, dashed 88 yards for a score with 5 minutes, 42 seconds left in the third quarter to put Southern Nash up 41-28. However, soon after, Bryant hit Josh Robinson for a 69-yard touchdown, leaving the Firebirds up 41-35.
As Foster approached Cooley on the sideline and implored him not to get tackled, the junior responded, finishing off runs of 50 and 63 yards to put Southern Nash up by 21 with 6 minutes, 11 seconds to go. The Firebirds rushed for 630 yards.
Yet the Firebirds defense, which yielded 50 points to Northern Nash to close the regular season, couldn’t get the key takeaway on Eastern Alamance. Colby May dashed in from five yards out to make it 56-42 before Eastern Alamance’s Antonio White recovered the onside kick.
In another cruel twist of fate for the Firebirds, Bryant’s pass was deflected into the air and grabbed by Zach Dixon, who raced 46 yards for the touchdown. The PAT left Southern Nash up seven at 56-49.
Taking over with 3:40 remaining, Southern Nash couldn’t get a first down and had to punt. That allowed Bryant to drop back and find a wide-open Jayden Daye for the 27-yard touchdown. Without hesitation, the Eagles went for the two-point conversion and notched the decisive points with Bryant’s pass to Lanier Rice in the corner of the end zone.
“We kind of felt like we had a hard time stopping them,” Eastern Alamance head coach John Kirby said. “And if we were going to get into a match like that, we didn’t want to match that. We went for it, we were successful, we won the game and we’re very excited.”
Cooley attempted to will Southern Nash to the win anyway on its final possession. Lining up in the wildcat, he instead threw a pass to junior quarterback Matt Foster, who ran 37 yards into Eastern Alamance territory. However, the Firebirds could get no closer before an emotional Foster was run out of bounds on fourth down to seal the game.
KNIGHT ENDS CAREER ON SIDELINE
The heralded high school football career of Southern Nash senior Zonovan Knight ended not on a carry from scrimmage, but on a kickoff return.
Such was one of several storylines from Friday night’s second-round game in the NCHSAA 3-A playoffs, where the Firebirds found themselves unable to hold a 56-35 lead with 6:11 remaining in losing a wild 57-56 shootout with Eastern Alamance. The teams ended up combining for 1,261 yards of total offense.
In a first half where the only defense that stopped anyone was the scoreboard clock — the only possession that ended without a touchdown was the final Eastern Alamance touch that saw the half expire — the Firebirds and Eagles combined to score on nine consecutive possessions before No. 10 sent the Firebirds into halftime with a 35-28 lead.
But along the way, Knight, an N.C. State commit, has his year and high school career ended simply trying to make a big play on special teams.
With the score tied at 14, Knight fielded the kickoff and was hemmed in along the Southern Nash sideline. He attempted to cut it back across the field, but in doing so, was rolled into by an Eastern Alamance defender and crumpled to the ground in pain.
Knight was helped off the field, but the ankle was too painful to go back in.
That set the stage for junior Quinton Cooley, who turned in the best single-game performance by a Southern Nash rusher in school history. Cooley finished with 413 yards on 33 carries and three TDs, breaking Alan Atwater’s previous mark of 387 yards in 2002 despite having his shoulder slide slightly out of the socket in the first quarter. Once it was put back into place, Cooley returned to the game and nearly sent Southern Nash into the third round.
The Knight and Cooley injuries happened within three plays of each other, but when Cooley returned, he sprinted to TDs of 6, 88, 50 and 63 yards.