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STANHOPE — The story of the Southern Nash varsity football team’s dominant 59-21 win over Fayetteville Terry Sanford was one of before and after.
Before Quinton Cooley and the offense of the top-seeded Firebirds took the field in the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs, the visiting No. 4-seeded Bulldogs looked well on their way to building a case for ending Southern Nash’s season.
Terry Sanford began the game taking a 14-0 lead through an offense that looked like it was capable of putting up points all night. After receiving the opening kickoff, it took nine plays for the Bulldogs to score and take the lead.
Then, when Southern Nash’s Jason Bland fumbled on the kickoff return, it took just one more — a 30-yard pass from quarterback Jacob Knight to towering 6-foot-5 wideout Yates Johnson — for the visitors to go up by two scores just under five minutes into the contest.
“We were hoping we could come in here and get up on them because we knew they were very good,” Terry Sanford head coach Bruce McClelland said. “It started off just like we would have scripted it.”
Though everything had gone to plan early, the Bulldogs had not yet legitimized their start by holding back the powerful Southern Nash offense. When the Firebirds came on for their first drive, it quickly became clear that wouldn’t happen.
After a slow start, Cooley said his team was driven to live down pre-conceived notions about the program and what it can achieve in the postseason.
“People always say we have a curse. ‘Southern Nash can’t do this,’” Cooley said. “We’re a doubted team and every time we get to the playoffs, we can’t get out of this, we can’t get out of that. They went up 14-0, so we needed to prove everybody wrong.”
Southern Nash scored 59 straight points thereafter — scoring eight touchdowns, six of which were finished off by Cooley, while quarterback Matt Foster and Jackson Vick added one each.
The rest of the game, Southern Nash did not even come close to punting or turning the ball over on downs. The team converted on 6-of-7 third downs and Cooley scored a 21-yard touchdown to make good on the team’s one fourth down of the night.
“It was a weird game, really,” head coach Brian Foster said. “We go down 14 to nothing and it seems like everything started going quick. We got some quick 3-and-outs and got some big runs. It just mounted up. I’m proud of our guys.”
Matt Foster, the son of the head coach, scored the home team’s first touchdown on a 1-yard run. He knew right then the offense was clicking.
“I felt it as soon as we scored that first touchdown, like when we punched them in the mouth,” Foster said. “I pretty much knew then, it’s going to be a long night for them on defense.”
Foster was on to something. Just before the first quarter ended, with 47.1 seconds remaining, Vick ran in a 10-yard touchdown and Cooley converted the two-point try to take a 15-14 lead that only expanded from there.
McClelland soon realized the offensive juggernaut his team studied on film was even scarier up close.
“They were even better in person...” McClelland reported. “You can’t tell if they’re up 21 or down 21. You can’t tell if it’s first quarter, fourth quarter or who is in the ballgame. They all mimic each other and play hard all four quarters.”
In the second quarter, Cooley scored four touchdowns in a row, three running the ball and another on a 67-yard punt return just before the half .
Just before taking his position as the deep return man on the electric play, Cooley told Brian Foster he doubted whether he still could return the punt.
According to Cooley, a little encouragement powered him ahead.
“He said, ‘You’re a dog,’ so when I picked it up and took it back, he said, ‘Now who was wrong?’ I told you you were a dog,’” Cooley recalled. “It just made me get a big smile on my face.”
Cooley put plenty of smiles on the faces of the replete Firebird crowd. He rushed 20 times for 154 yards, running on mostly short fields.
“Quinton is a grown man,” Matt Foster said laughing. “There’s not much else I can say about that.”
After the half, Cooley scored on a pair of 20-yard runs to end his big night in the third quarter. With a running clock in the fourth, Terry Sanford running back Dorian Clark, the program’s all-time leading rusher, capped off the night with one more rushing touchdown before the Firebirds ended his high school career in the third round.
Southern Nash will host No. 3-seeded Eastern Alamance in the East Region finals next Friday. Just like against Terry Sanford, the Firebirds’ core group of seniors will be driven to ensure their high school careers aren’t over just yet.
“We play every game like it could be our last, because it could,” Matt Foster said. “We all love each other and before the game, I tell them, ‘I love y’all, now show me you love me.’ And they showed me tonight.”