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Quinton Cooley has a distaste for errors.
So when the Southern Nash High senior running back and Wake Forest commit was stripped of the football by Fike’s Octavius Carpenter during the opening drive of the second half in Friday’s 3-A Big East Conference opener in Buddy Bedgood Stadium, thoughts of redemption quickly climbed to the forefront.
The Wake Forest University commit did not disappoint.
With the Firebirds trailing in the fourth quarter for the first time all season against an upstart Golden Demons squad attempting to stir up memories from five decades ago, Cooley ran for 142 of his 294 total yards in the fourth quarter, scoring three of his four TDs in that span in a 36-20 Southern Nash win.
The Firebirds, bidding for their fourth straight unbeaten march through Big East play, remained unbeaten through seven games and defended their No. 7 ranking in this week’s Associated Press 3-A poll. Fike, again competitive in a losing effort, slipped to 2-5.
“Mistakes, they change the momentum of the team,” Cooley said. “You saw that changed momentum. They drive down the field and score, so I knew I had to come back out strong with my head up.”
Fike, committing to keeping the ball away from the Firebirds’ double-wing offense, turned the Cooley fumble into points in slow motion. Holding possession for seven-plus minutes, the Demons turned a surprising 8-8 halftime score in their favor. Senior Mike Rand, who recovered the Cooley fumble, darted in from five yards out, and the Demons led 14-8 after the missed extra point.
On a night where legendary Fike head coach Henry Trevathan and his three North Carolina High School Athletic Association 4-A championship teams were honored with the unveiling of a monument at the stadium entrance — the 91-year-old Trevathan ran off the field with his former players from all six of his seasons at Fike at halftime — echoes of the past, or at least an upset, stirred as the fourth quarter began.
But Cooley helped put a stop to those aspirations, scoring on TD runs of 7, 57 and 4 yards in the second half.
Cooley responded to the Fike lead by scoring from 7 yards out with 10:42 to play, and after senior kicker Evan Barnes added the extra point, senior linebacker Isaiah Bland gave the visitors some breathing room by intercepting Fike sophomore quarterback Demari Daniels and returning it 36 yards for a score. The Barnes PAT put the Firebirds up 22-14 with 9:51 to play, and the Demons were effectively out of answers.
Southern Nash missed a 35-yard field goal in the first half and was held to just 15 offensive plays from scrimmage in that span.
“Their game plan was perfect,” Firebirds head coach Brian Foster said of Fike. “A lot like what Bunn did to us last year, run the play clock down and keep us off the field. Then, in the second half, we got those couple of turnovers and it changed everything.”
Fike, in winning the coin toss and electing to receive, took the ball down the field and consumed over five minutes of clock, ending its initial drive with a 5-yard run from Daniels. A penalty on the extra point moved the ball to the 1-yard line, and Fike head coach Tom Nelson ushered the offense back onto the field. There, senior Curtis Bullock gained the edge for the two-point conversion, putting the Demons up 8-0 early. Cooley replied with a 1-yard plunge and the two-point conversion to tie it, but once Southern Nash sprayed the second-quarter field goal wide left, Fike engineered a massive drive that ate up 9 minutes, 14 seconds of clock.
Facing fourth-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Fike got the Firebirds to jump into the neutral zone. With the ball moved to the 1, Bullock was met at the line of scrimmage by senior defensive tackle Allen Langley and senior linebacker Cameron Thompson, thwarting a crucial drive to end the half.
“I thought there was a couple of key plays,” Nelson said. “One, us not scoring before halftime — that would have been a huge momentum lift for us. Then, the interception and the fumble. That was the swing.”
Fike visits Franklinton next week, while Southern Nash hosts Northern Nash for homecoming.