Prep Football: A.L. Brown 31, Concord 26
By Josh Hoke
KANNAPOLIS — For 15 minutes it had the potential to be one of the biggest blowouts in the 80-plus years of the storied A.L. Brown-Concord series.
It turned out to be among the most enthralling.
The Wonders jumped out to a 24-point lead but narrowly held on Friday for a 31-26 win over the rival Spiders, clinching the South Piedmont Conference championship and ensuring that they’ll be well seeded in next week’s state playoffs.
The result was a fitting bookend to the regular season. Coach Mike Newsome’s Wonders (10-1, 7-0 SPC) opened the regular season by building a 30-point halftime lead against Shelby but scrambled to hold off a furious rally. Had Glen Padgett’s Spiders completed the comeback in the season finale, it likely would have been even more surprising.
“It’s a rivalry game and it doesn’t matter what the score is,” said Newsome, speaking over the sound of Brown’s students ringing the Victory Bell. “Usually at the end it ends up close. I’m just glad we were able to hold them off there at the end.”
Despite a loss to Hickory Ridge last week, the Spiders could have tied the Wonders atop the SPC standings with a victory and taken the league’s No. 1 postseason seed via tiebreaker. However, it looked for awhile like this game was destined to become just another conference blowout on a laundry list of them for the Wonders in 2011.
But Concord (8-3, 5-2 SPC) never flinched, even after going down 24-0 late in the first quarter. Behind Quarterback B.J. Beecher, who accounted for four total touchdowns, and tailback Denzel Phillips, who rushed 29 times for 119 yards and helped keep the Wonders’ offense off the field, the Spiders nearly put together an improbable comeback.
“I don’t think there are words to explain how proud I am [of my team],” said an emotional Padgett, who had tears in his eyes after his post-game talk with his players.
“I think it took us awhile to adjust to their speed. Their so fast and in the first quarter, they kept getting on the edge. Our defensive coaches and defensive players did a great job of adjusting to it. We kind of found ourselves in the second quarter, and we had a couple of chances.”
Down 17 at halftime, Beecher engineered a scoring drive, which was aided by two pass interference penalties, on the first possession of the second half. His third touchdown pass of the game, a 15 yarder to Bravone Howard, capped the drive and started the comeback.
After the teams exchanged punts and Brown quarterback Brandon Eppinger threw an interception deep in Concord territory, Beecher converted three 3-and-11s and one fourth-and-9 on a 17-play scoring drive that started late in the third quarter. His one-yard touchdown run on a sneak more than halfway through the final quarter – the conversion attempt failed – pulled the Spiders within five at 31-26.
Brown muffed the ensuing kickoff but Concord failed to convert a fourth-and-2 from the Wonders 30. After three straight runs, Brown was also facing fourth-and-short with just over two minutes left in the game.
Newsome made perhaps the gutsiest call of his short tenure in Kannapolis, deciding against a punt from his own 40-yard line. Tailback Kalif Phillips needed a yard and gained two with a powerful second effort on the inside run. Four plays later, Phillips was stuffed on a fourth-down run, but his initial pickup burned enough clock for the Wonders to retain the Victory Bell.
“We hadn’t been real successful stopping them on defense,” Newsome said. “We just knew we needed to keep the ball and felt really confident in that package that we had been in.”
For much of the first half it looked as if the Spiders – much like the other teams in the league – would be overmatched by the homestanding Wonders. Capitalizing on Concord mistakes, Brown led big and threatened to put the game away before some in the crowd had even settled into their seats.
The Wonders marched 57 yards on the game’s first drive, opening the scoring with a nine-yard touchdown run from Damien Washington. The Wonders were as efficient as usual, but the Spiders kept hurting themselves with untimely mistakes.
A fumbled exchange on their first drive set up Brown’s second score, a five-yard run from Phillips. Another fumble prematurely ended their third drive and set up Phillips’ second scoring run, a 32 yarder that put Brown up 24-0 late in the first quarter.
Beecher tossed two second-quarter touchdown passes, putting the Spiders within striking distance. Had a key holding penalty not disrupted another promising drive midway through the second quarter, Concord could have been within three points at the break.
Instead, the Wonders’ quick-strike offense stole the momentum less than a minute after Beecher’s second touchdown toss. Eppinger heaved a deep post off his back foot to receiver Keeon Johnson on the fourth play of the ensuing drive. Johnson outwrestled two defenders for the ball and fell into the end zone to give the Wonders a 31-14 lead with 21 seconds left in the first half.
The Wonders had to hold on, but they ultimately won the first of two championships they’ve been eying all season.
“Keeping the bell means something, but our main goal is to win a state championship,” Eppinger said. “That’s our main focus right now, especially going into the playoffs.”
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