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Stopping Southern Nash senior Quinton Cooley was going to be the No. 1 priority for the Eastern Alamance football team in Friday’s North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A East final.
After all, the Eagles had a front-row seat for Cooley’s greatest individual performance ever, statistically, in the second round of the playoffs last season. With backfield mate Zonovan Knight, who had set Southern Nash single-season and career rushing records the week before, out of the game after an ankle injury in the first quarter, Cooley took charge. Despite suffering a dislocated shoulder that he had to repeatedly pop back into its socket throughout the game, Cooley ran like he never had before he set a Firebirds single-game record with 413 yards on 38 carries.
But it didn’t matter in the end as Southern Nash was stunned 57-56 by Eastern Alamance. Fifty-four weeks later, Cooley set forth another epic performance against the Eagles, but this time the Firebirds were celebrating at the end. Cooley, who will sign with Wake Forest University in less than two weeks and enroll at the Atlantic Coast Conference institution in January, pounded his way to 344 yards and three touchdowns on 47 carries to lead the Firebirds to a 32-29 victory and their first state championship-game appearance.
“That’s a game to remember but we lost that one,” Cooley said of his record-setting performance last year. “But we won this time. We found a way to keep scoring. We’re celebrating. We’re loving it right now.”
POUND, POUND, POUND
When Southern Nash’s Chason Royal smothered an attempted onside kick by Eastern Alamance’s Jackson Poteat, the Firebirds took over at the 50-yard line, hanging onto a three-point lead with 5:37 left in the fourth quarter.
With Eagles quarterback Austin Bryant having thrown four TD passes to four different receivers, the sense was that Southern Nash was going to have to score again to win the game.
Or maybe not.
Instead, Firebirds quarterback Matt Foster called Cooley’s number 10 straight times. On third and 1 from the 18, he pounded for three yards and a first down. Four plays later on fourth and 1 from the 6, Cooley again punched the ball across the needed hash mark for a first down and nearly a touchdown.
But with the Eagles out of timeouts and the clock under a minute, Foster simply took the final snap and took a knee.
Eastern Alamance never got another chance.
For the game, Southern Nash had the ball 37 minutes and 13 seconds, leaving Eastern Alamance just 10:47. The Firebirds’ 80-yard opening drive consumed 10:41.
“I don’t know if that was the plan but that’s kind of what it turned into,” Matt Foster said. “That first drive was long but we felt it and I’m sure they felt it, too. It’s like what they tell us in the locker room every game — it’s a boxing match and you’ve just got to keep on throwing jabs, jabs and eventually you’ll get the knockout.”
Cooley, who had 53 yards in the first quarter, ran for 90 in the second but most of those came on a 62-yard gallop for Southern’s second TD. After that run, Cooley only managed 13 yards on eight carries the rest of the half as the Eagles seemed to have three defenders on him as soon as he touched the ball.
Cooley didn’t touch the ball again until the Firebirds’ second possession of the third quarter but then he was able to find daylight again. He toted the ball seven times for 95 yards, including a 44-yard TD, in the 11-play, 94-yard scoring drive that included a 10-yard holding penalty.
“We made some adjustments at halftime,” said Brian Batchelor, who coaches the offensive line and calls plays with running backs coach Brian Rice. “We finally got a feel for what they were doing. They had a great game plan and we kind of tweaked some things at halftime, went to it in the second half and it was successful.”
Matt Foster proved a solid complement to Cooley with 81 yards on 16 carries while senior Daylon Whitley had one of the biggest runs of the night. Whitley, who was the starting fullback last season but moved to inside linebacker this year, blasted through the Eagles defense nearly untouched for a 21-yard TD on third and 1. That score put the Firebirds up 32-22 with 7:02 to play in the fourth quarter, setting up Cooley’s heroics down the stretch.
“I think they’ve got other weapons besides (No.) 20 and sometimes they lull you to sleep one way or the other,” said veteran Eastern Alamance coach John Kirby. “(Cooley), you might have him one time and you might have him the next time but the third time, he’s going to get away from you. You know, to control that kid all night long is a big order and I’m not sure there’s a team out there that can do that. I know there hadn’t been a team to this point to do that. He’s an outstanding player and he’s what high school football’s all about. He’s an outstanding player and he seems like a better kid.”
The Eagles sent defenders at Cooley all night long and most of the time they were met head-on by the 5-foot-9, 190-pound back. But the two Eagles in Cooley’s grill for most of the night — sophomore inside linebackers Will Burnette and Joey Teixeira — earned Cooley’s respect.
“Their top tacklers are sophomores and they’re really good players, so I have to shout them out,” Cooley said. “They’re going to keep balling.”
Cooley is near the 3,000-yard plateau for the season with 2,977 yards. That total, along with his 48 rushing touchdowns and 54 total TDs as well as 352 total points scored lead the state in all classifications and associations, per Maxpreps.com. Cooley also ranks in the top three in TDs and points nationally and is close to the top 10 in rushing yards.
Because he played defense and special teams as a sophomore, Cooley only had 77 rushing yards in 2017 when he picked up some carries late during Southern Nash blowouts. Still, he’s only 263 yards shy of tying Knight’s career rushing record of 5,073 as Cooley currently has 4,810 career yards. Given his recent performances, getting 263 in Saturday’s state championship game against Charlotte Catholic is within reason.
Based on the stats posted on Southern Nash’s Maxpreps page, Cooley has 295 career receiving yards, 233 kick return yards, 910 on punts and 10 on an interception to give him 6,258 all-purpose yards. Throw in another 107 career passing yards and he has 6,365 total yards.
Those two yardage figures as well as his 606 career points are also likely school records.
BEND BUT DON’T BREAK
While Eastern Alamance was well versed in Cooley’s capabilities, the Firebirds were also keenly aware of what Eagles quarterback Austin Bryant could do. The 6-1, 170-pounder threw for 411 yards and five TDs to beat the Firebirds last year.
Bryant got his shots in Friday, connecting on four TD tosses of 47, 84, 16 and 35 yards each. However, Bryant also threw two interceptions, both ending up in the hands of Firebirds sophomore cornerback Jackson Vick and both led to Southern Nash points.
The first pick came in the second quarter when Bryant’s pass sailed beyond the reach of A.J. Camuto and into Vick’s arms at the Eagles’ 35. Southern Nash got to the 4 but resorted to a 21-yard field goal by senior Evan Barnes.
Vick’s next pick was bigger as it came with the Eagles on the march with a first down at the Southern Nash 25. Vick grabbed it inside the 5 to kill the drive. The Firebirds needed only nine plays to go all 96 yards for a 25-15 lead.
The Firebirds secondary came up with back-to-back stops on Eastern Alamance’s first possession of the second half. After stuffing Colby May twice to set up third and 4 at the 24, Southern Nash put enough pressure on Bryant to force him into bad passes on third and then fourth down, giving the Firebirds possession.
“Austin Bryant, he’s a good quarterback, able to move and we had to make sure to lock down all their receivers so they would throw it away and not make any passes,” said Southern Nash senior defensive back Izaiah Walker-Warren. “Coach K (Kwamaine Battle) and Coach (Jordan) Bass told us all week that we need to stay focused and don’t give up, no matter what happens. They were like, ‘Keep your head in the game and stop their passing game.’
“Their run game wasn’t that strong; the passing game was what could kill us. So, we were locked in the whole game. Jackson Vick got two interceptions. Hey, what can I say?”
BARNES’ BIG NIGHT
Perhaps the secret weapon for the Firebirds on Friday was Barnes, the senior placekicker who had mono and missed the first two playoff games. Barnes’ evening didn’t start very well when he shanked the extra-point kick after the first TD, partly due to a low snap.
However, Barnes didn’t miss again. He connected on two PAT kicks and hit the 21-yard field goal as well as the 42-yarder, which cleared the bar by several yards and eventually proved to be the winning margin.
Barnes also kicked off deep most of the night with one touchback, forcing the Eagles to start deep in their own territory.
“Since he’s gotten mono, he’s been playing really good!” quipped head coach Brian Foster.
LOCKER ROOM QUOTES
Amid the hugs and tears on the field following the game Friday night was a signed being waved by some Southern Nash players emblazoned with the question: “How do you like this rec ball now?”
The sign was in reference to a comment made by Eagles sophomore linebacker Will Burnette in an interview with David Kehrli of the Burlington Times-News.
“They have a unique offense,” Burnette said of the Firebirds. “It reminds me of rec ball, where you have a running back and you just feed that running back. Everybody’s a running back. They don’t pass the ball a lot. I feel like we have a good grasp on that. I feel like we’re a run-stopping defense.”
In fairness, Burnette wasn’t wrong in saying the Firebirds just feed their running back. Certainly Cooley’s fourth-quarter performance wasn’t based on anything more complicated that running behind a line that blocked and pounding the ball forward.
And Southern Nash does make everyone in the backfield a running back, but even more importantly, a blocker if they’re not the one carrying the ball.
But the Eagles defense couldn’t stop the run when it needed it the most.
LONG TIME COMING
Of Southern Nash’s seven assistant coaches, only defensive coordinator Robbie Kennedy didn’t play for head coach Brian Foster. All of the others — Batchelor, Rice, Battle, Bass, Sterling Leonard, Adam Monts de Oca and Zack Foster, Foster’s oldest son — either played for the Firebirds when Foster was head coach or when he was an assistant on Ray Davis’ staff from 1990 to 1997.
Therefore, all the Firebirds assistants understand how monumental an achievement it is to finally be playing in a state championship game.
Prior to Foster’s first winning season as head coach in 2005, Southern Nash had just 11 winning campaigns and two .500 seasons in its first 37 seasons. Foster’s teams went just 19-56 in his first seven seasons.
“Coach Foster tells people all the time, they see us now but they don’t know how it was,” said Batchelor, a 1997 graduate. “He’s been here 30 years and I played here back in the mid-90s so I’ve kind of got the same feeling as he does for seeing how far we’ve come. But I cannot express how grateful we are for the community and our kids and our coaches and school for the support because we have come a long way.”
Battle, a 2007 graduate who was a Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas selection before going on to play at Virginia Tech, marveled at being part of history at his alma mater.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said with a big grin. “Twelve, 13 years ago, I didn’t ever think I would be back coaching here and here we are going to a state championship. They’ve worked their tails off, from the spring time to now. The kids believed in themselves. They like each other so much. We just try to keep them calm and they just keep cheering and cheering and laughing and playing with each other. It’s just a great experience!”