3A Football Championship: Eastern Alamance impressed by West
By Paul Hershey
RALEIGH ó When Eastern Alamance head coach John Kirby first watched West Rowan play on film in preparation for Saturday’s 3A state championship game, he ó like many others before him, probably ó was awed.
“It was like ‘Holy Cow, there’s no way. They’re really good. I’m not sure we can play them,’ ” Kirby recalled. “Then you watch it again and you think, ‘Man, maybe we can do this’ and then you get yourself going and it’s like ‘Maybe we’ve got a shot at this thing.’ ”
Kirby was right to believe they had a shot against the defending champs because when it came time to play the game, the challenger Eagles did. Overcoming a nightmarish start, Eastern took a one-point lead into the fourth quarter before succumbing to K.P. Parks’ fourth touchdown and the Falcons’ awesome defensive front in the 28-21 decision.
“We talked coming down here that we were fortunate to be here, but we think we deserved to be here and we felt like we lost to a really, really good football team,” Kirby said in the press room with four of his disappointed players at his side.
“I feel like like we played pretty good against them.”
They did ó at least after the first 12 minutes, 18 seconds.
That’s how long it took for West to race out to a 20-0 lead against what appeared to be yet another overmatched opponent.
Whether it was West itself or the atmosphere of Carter-Finley Stadium or the stakes, Eastern, in its first-ever championship game appearance, was rattled early on.
Kirby didn’t confirm this afterward, nor did he deny it.
“I’m not going to say we came out with the wow factor, but we’ve never been in a stadium like this or played before a crowd like that,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s what it was, but we didn’t start off good.”
A 57-yard return on the opening kickoff led to the Falcons’ first score and a fumble by quarterback Lamar Ivey set up their second. In between, the Eagles almost gave the ball away on a botched lateral on their kickoff.
A bad start for sure, although that wasn’t the first adversity Eastern had on Championship Saturday. The team bus was an hour late in picking them up at the school.
“That’s not why we lost the game, but that’s the way our day started,” Kirby said.
It got worse when Parks broke loose down the right sideline for a 53-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter.
At that point, it looked like a second straight title game rout was in the offering for the Falcons, who breezed to a 35-7 win last year.
However, Eastern would make West work for this one.
“We talked about all week long about whether you’re up or you’re down, you’ve still got an opportunity because you’ve got to play the whole game,” Kirby said.
Eastern two-way standout Donald Mattocks picked off a deep pass from B.J. Sherrill, then took a short pass 54 yards for a confidence-building score.
The Eagles’ defense responded by stuffing Parks on three rushes, the offense drove 73 yards for another score on its next possession, and the game was on.
“That was a momentum swinger,” Kirby said of Mattocks’ touchdown. “I felt like that got us back in it and after that we sort of settled down a little bit. I was almost like ‘Hey, we can play this game.’ ”
Especially on defense.
Though Parks deservedly earned Most Valuable Player honors in the game, Eastern held the record-setting runner to his lowest yardage total in a game this season. He finished with 154 yards on 29 carries. Take away his 53-yarder in the second quarter and he barely was over 100.
“Parks is an outstanding running back,” Kirby said. “You’re not going to stop him. You’ve just got to try and slow him down and I thought we did a pretty good job of that.”
Eastern didn’t do anything fancy. It played with seven defenders in the box pretty much throughout. But the Eagles’ front is their strength and they lived up to the hype, as far as West head coach Scott Young was concerned.
“Their defensive line is good and I still say that,” he said. “They’ve got four outstanding kids. We were challenged up front all day. Their linebackers did a good job of finishing plays and they chased down K.P. a whole lot.”
Just not quite enough.
Parks used his speed to get around the corner and score the 7-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter that turned out to be the game-winner.
“It was hard,” Eastern senior linebacker Matt McGhee said about trying to corral Parks all game. “Me and (senior linebacker) Drew (Miles) stuck together. We flowed to the ball, we did what we had to. It didn’t work.”
It didn’t work because even with Parks somewhat held in check, he and the Falcons still found a way to make enough plays to win.
“The thing with trying to defense them is their quarterback has thrown for 2,000 yards this year so you can’t put all your eggs in that one basket,” Kirby said. “But we felt like we needed to try and stop him. We tried to mirror him with McGhee and Drew Miles and we pretty much knew where he was the whole time. We knew where he was when he was running down the sideline too. Great athletes make plays and he made plays.”
And as good as Eastern’s defensive line was, West’s was better. Chris Smith, Emmanuel Gbunblee and Mackel Gaither got after Ivey at the start, then got back after him at the end to close the deal ó all the while racking up nine sacks and forcing four turnovers. On the Eagles’ final drive, Ivey barely had time to throw a pass as their mostly new offensive line succumbed to West’s rushers.
“Coming into the year our offensive line was all new guys,” Kirby said. “Early in the year we struggled, but as the year went we got pretty good. But I think it caught up to us tonight because we played some men out there on that (defensive) front. They pinned their ears back and they came. We battled and fought but sometimes it just wasn’t enough.”
Such was the case for Eastern as a whole. The Eagles won 14 of 15 games heading into Saturday and probably would have made it 15 out of 16 had they been playing against a lot of teams.
But they played West, the winner ó and still ó champion.
“You often hear coaches say they’re excited to get here and then after they get here they want to go back and win,” Kirby said. “We wanted to win pretty good today, but we knew it was a tall order.”