ELIZABETHTOWN — Big plays kept coming.
For the first Friday in September, East Bladen’s 31-28 victory over Whiteville in the Three Rivers Conference football opener had all the characteristics of November. Both teams showed deep playoff potential, the margin of decision razor thin and ticks of the clock incredibly precious.
“We had a slow start, but we’re still the team to beat,” senior Jordan Payton said amid the Eagles’ postgame celebration. “We’ll have to prove it every week.”
And how. South Columbus, the coaches’ co-favorite with Whiteville, is next.
“No rest for the weary,” shrugged a relieved and happy seventh-year head coach Robby Priest.
Payton’s strip of Ervin Moore on a kickoff return was turned into a touchdown by senior Dayveon Washington, a 29-yard return with senior Josh McKoy’s pivotal block giving the Eagles two touchdowns in 10 seconds late in the third quarter.
Eric Chancy’s 10-yard fourth down run had lifted East Bladen back ahead 24-21 with 2:16 to play, a score set up by a 61-yard kickoff return from senior Shy Pone with a 15-yard penalty tacked on when the kicker was flagged for extra toughness out of bounds.
The 31-21 cushion was the largest for either team, adding momentum to the fourth lead change and shocking the orange-clad crowd that filled the guests’ bleachers.
“I saw Rasean make him cut back,” Payton said of sophomore teammate Rasean McKoy’s pursuit on the kickoff return. “He was in front of me. I made a play, and Dayveon came and scooped and scored.”
It wasn’t by chance, Washington explained.
“We had been talking about it,” he said. “The coaches were saying we weren’t getting down on it hard enough. When you hustle … I was in the right position at the right time.”
East Bladen’s timing was pin-point throughout.
• Driving to take a 17-14 lead on sophomore quarterback Zach Meares’ 3-yard run, sophomore lineman Brady Hollingsworth and junior running back Lawson Hester fell on fumbles to keep the 14-snap, 68-yard march moving.
• Chancy’s converted fourth down on his third-quarter scoring run was the Eagles’ fourth contributing to points. Gabe Barber’s 31-yard field goal was preceded by a fourth-and-1; Meares’ scoring run was set up by a fourth-and-5 and a fourth-and-1.
• Junior Kasey Price stopped the Wolfpack’s first drive of the second half with a fumble recovery at the East Bladen 42. Pone intercepted Ty Moss inside the East Bladen 20 on the game’s final snap.
• Moss and company didn’t have the ball much either. East Bladen had it 18:51 of the first half’s 24 minutes; Whiteville (2-1) managed only 15:24 for the game.
That played huge in East Bladen’s defense meeting the challenge of the 2017 league player of the year and his arsenal of weapons. When Camrahn Jamison recovered an onside kick after Moss plunged a yard pulling the Wolfpack within 31-28 with 4:58 to go, Price made the stick and stop on Jvonte Davis on second down and Rasean McKoy knocked down Moss’ pass for Sammy Shipman at the East Bladen 20 to force a punt.
The Eagles came up 22 seconds shy of running out the clock, but Pone had the pick on the game’s final play.
“We didn’t want it to turn into a shootout,” Priest said of the second half. “We knew they had a little more weapons. We got more of the breaks; the penalties at bad times, they got them.
“The defense was pretty steady. They came up big in the clutch.”
The Eagles ran it 61 times, with Chancy netting 93 yards and scoring runs of 2 and 10 yards, and Hester finding 69 yards behind senior Tyreese McElveen, Hollingsworth, senior Davis Alsup, junior Jordan Stanley, junior Rashard Willis and junior Xavier McKoy.
Moss completed only one of five passes after intermission, finishing 5-for-11 for 96 yards. He ran 10 times for 36 yards, finding the end zone from 6, 4 and 1 yard out. Davis counted a 37-yard score among 14 carries for 135 yards.
Price, senior Tyvon Townsend, Washington, Payton and junior Zac Hester were instrumental in the success of a fleet-footed defense starting to carve out an identity. Pone excelled with a third-quarter sprint off the far hash to deny Jordan Faulk a touchdown run of more than 50 yards.
The steamy Friday in September resembled more of what happens in the chill of November.
As the stadium emptied, well-wishers having come and gone, Priest and his team could finally exhale.
“This one feels good,” he said.
Timing was everything.
Lawson Hester looks for running room behind Kasey Price, middle, and the seal block of Xavier McKoy in Friday’s 31-28 win over Whiteville.
Senior Jordan Payton visits the Whiteville backfield for the takedown of Tovonte Smith in Friday’s 31-28 Eagles’ victory.
Alan Wooten can be reached at 910-247-9132 or email@example.com. Twitter: @alanwooten19.