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London column: Laster's leadership the difference

MOUNT ULLA — Officially, Zay Laster had zero completions for zero yards, and yet he had one of the best nights any West Rowan quarterback has experienced.
In 53 years of football, no West QB had ever scored four rushing touchdowns in a single outing, but Laster plowed his way into the history books in Friday’s wild 32-27 win against Statesville in the second round of the 3A playoffs.
Laster’s final score, a calm, determined third-and-goal push from the 2 with 25 seconds left on the Mount Ulla scoreboard propelled the Falcons (11-2) into the third round against Concord.
“I actually thought about it in the third quarter that I didn’t have a single completion,” Laster said. “But this is a physical sport, and I’m a running quarterback. I was thinking I could still help the team get a win even if I never had a completion.”
That’s exactly what happened. Each of Laster’s 22 carries — mostly by design — earned him plenty of bumps and bruises, but he turned his opportunities into 92 precious yards.
“We knew we wouldn’t throw much because we wanted to run the ball, control the ball and keep Statesville’s offense off the field,” West coach Scott Young said. “I thought Zay’s leadership and toughness were tremendous. He took some shots — but he also gave some shots.”
Laster, a 200-pound lefty, was as stunned as the rest of his teammates when Statesville, an NPC foe West hasn’t lost to since 2003, grabbed a 14-0 lead.
“The important thing was we didn’t let that deficit get to us,” West center Hunter Mashburn said. “We had to let it go. Even if the scoreboard said a lot different, we had to act like it was 0-0.”
In deep trouble and with the Greyhounds gaining confidence by the second, West turned to tailback Dinkin Miller (34 carries, 185 yards), and he responded again.
Miller and the offensive line turned the tide. But even after the Falcons reeled off 20 straight points, Statesville wasn’t done. The Hounds connected on a fourth-down pass 65 seconds before halftime to regain a 21-20 lead.
Stubborn Statesville still led 27-26 with 6:54 remaining in the game, and Greyhounds punched the air in elation when a measurement said a straining, fighting Laster was stopped an inch short of a first down at the Statesville 15.
West’s dynasty (57 wins in 59 games and 17 straight playoff victories) could’ve crumbled right there, but the defense got a stop — a quick stop — and the Falcons’ offense had one last chance, taking over at its 43 with a little over four minutes left.
It was all Miller and Laster from that point.
On third-and-1 from the Statesville 20, with the clock ticking toward a minute left, Laster bulled his way for 11 brutal, punishing yards and first-and-goal at the 9.
“I commend Statesville for being a great team,” Laster said. “But our offensive line is great. They put in so much work every week to be ready for a game like this.”
Laster didn’t hurry, didn’t rush, never got rattled. West still had timeouts and it planned to not only score but to exhaust the clock.
And then it was third-and-goal at the 2. Miller wasn’t in the backfield, so every single soul in the stadium knew Laster would carry the ball.
“Statesville knows us so well, they were actually calling out our plays,” said Laster, who missed the regular season meeting with the Greyhounds with a sprained ankle. “But knowing what’s coming and stopping it are two completely different things.”
On that game-deciding play from the 2, West lineman Brandon Hansen had the ominous assignment of dealing with Statesville’s Derrick Herring, a 305-pounder as quick as a hummingbird.
“My job was to zone down on 77 (Herring)” Hansen explained. “By myself. It was like trying to move a freight train, but I guess I did OK.”
Then Laster followed Mashburn into the end zone the way Green Bay Packer QB Bart Starr followed Jerry Kramer in that long ago Ice Bowl.
“I was uncovered as a blocker,” Mashburn said. “So it was basically two-on-one. It was Me and Zay against one linebacker.”
Good odds. Laster scored. West’s dynasty is alive and well.
“I really commend our kids,” Young said. “Down 14-0 to Statesville, a lot of teams would’ve found a way to lose this ballgame. Our guys found a way to win it.”

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