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STANHOPE — Extraordinary execution in the kicking game propelled the Southern Nash High varsity football team to the most resounding playoff victory in the 28 years head coach Brian Foster has been associated with the program before a modest turnout on a cold Friday night in Firebirds Stadium.
The Firebirds, Big East Conference champs for the third time in the last four years and the No. 3 seed among the 16 East Region qualifiers, piled up 42 points in the long-lasting first quarter en route to a 76-12 rout of No. 14 Fayetteville Westover, which exited with a 4-8 record.
Foster said he could never remember a Southern Nash team amassing 76 playoff points or registering a 64-point victory margin.
Keep in mind the clock, because of the Firebirds’ 42-point lead, ran continuously in the second half. The process could have been begun in the second quarter, but Westover vetoed the suggestion.
The Southern Nash pair of senior place-kicker Justin Vazquez and sophomore kickoff teams specialist Quinton Cooley created mass confusion for Westover the opening quarter.
The Wolverines were confused as to where Vazquez would place his kickoffs and Cooley recovered a fumbled kickoff, pounced on a Vazquez kickoff before it was touched by a Westover player and returned a punt 48 yards for a touchdown.
The coldest night of the 2017 season suddenly turned frigid for Westover.The Firebirds (11-1) entered halftime ahead 56-0 and with 231 yards total offense as compared to minus-35 yards for the Wolverines.
Junior Zonovan Knight thundered for a trio of first quarter TDs on jaunts of 55, 5 and 8 yards. Running mate Kendrick Bell found the end zone on caries of 5 and 6 yards.
Daylon Whitley emerged a brute of a running back in the fast-moving second half, slamming to TDs from 10 and 15 yards ou, and amassing 87 yards on just six rushes. Junior Desmond Vick plunged 2 yards for a TD; senior Kelvin Whitaker scored from 7 yards out and senior Lorenzo Sessoms passed 43 yards to senior Nadir Thompson for the other TD. Carlos Garcia kicked eight extra points in as many tries and Vazquez added a pair in the second half.
Thus, the Firebirds matched last season’s second-round advance and oppose Eastern Alamance at home in the second round next Friday. Eastern Alamance ousted Northeasts Guilfford, 20-13, Friday night.
Did Southern Nash send a message that it was indeed worthy of the No. 2 seed?
“We don’t worry about stuff like that,” Cooley responded. “We just come ready to play.”
The Firebirds were ready to play from the opening kickoff against the Wolverines, seventh-place finishers in the 3-A/4-A Patriot Conference.
The Wolverines couldn’t handle the opening kickoff, and Southern Nash’s Cooley pounced on the loose football. Southern Nash fumbled the football back to Westover junior Trevon Hart.
From that point,Westover could do nothing right until striking for a pair of TDs against Southern Nash reserves in the second half. Still, Southern Nash back-up players outscored the Wolverines 20-12 in the second half.
“We have been practicing onside kicks all week,” Vazquex explained. “We watched how they set up, and they kept putting four up front instead of five. They put two deep. That left a gap on one side. I kept mixing up (short, deep, left and right) my kickoffs. I looked for the open gap and tried to kick it where they weren’t.”
Noted Foster: “We saw a film and they left the middle open. We pooch-kicked and they didn’t adjust really well. The first one was intentional, but after that ...”
Cooley did his job covering kickoffs.
“I was the outside man and coach said not to let the ball get out-of-bounds,” Cooley revealed. “I reacted on the ball and got it.
Cooley later returned his fifth punt for a TD this season. He also has one fumble-return TD.
“It’s great feeling,” the sophomore assured. “My teammates are always hyping me about my punt returns. They say I can do it. I believe in myself that I can do it. I just saw the line and I took it. I broke a few tackles and I was free. All I saw was green grass in front of me.”
In bouncing back from a miserable first half that produced only one first down, Westover got on the scoreboard on Jonathan Wright’s 15-yard bullish carry and added a second TD when 6-foot-2, 195-pound sophomore Keyshwon Lindsey broke free from a pack of Southern Nash defenders and bolted 63 yards.
But the Firebirds’ seventh consecutive win was, in essence, sealed in the 42-point opening quarter.
“I played good and the whole team played good,” Cooley remarked.
Added Fostser: “Overall, I thought we played pretty well,. We were out of school and the weather was different. We practiced in the rain and mud.
“I was really proud of the guys. We’ll see what happens next week.”