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PINETOPS — In a few years, researchers will descend upon the final score of the 2019 “Function at the Junction” and assume that the SouthWest Edgecombe High varsity football team posed little threat to a Tarboro team that extended its winning streak to 35 games with a 24-7 victory before a standing-room only crowd.
Those historians will be grossly incorrect.
Instead, the 2-A Eastern Plains Conference Cougars, who entered ranked No. 5 in The Associated Press 2-A poll, squandered away three scoring opportunities that left 21 points out of SouthWest’s grasp — and any opportunity at toppling the Vikings for the first time since 2015. The Cougars were turned away twice inside the Tarboro 10-yard line and dropped a wide-open pass down the sideline in the second quarter that would have resulted in another touchdown.
“I think that’s part of Tarboro’s mojo,” SouthWest Edgecombe head coach Jonathan Cobb said. “You drive down on them and get so close, and they find a way to make that goal-line stand right before halftime. I think we dropped a wide-open, probably touchdown, in the first half. In the second half, we had some big plays set up and couldn’t connect. If you’re going to beat a program like Tarboro, who’s now on a 35-game win streak, you have to make those two or three critical plays in the ballgame.”
Instead, the Cougars suffered their first loss in four games, while Tarboro, the two-time defending North Carolina High School Athletic Association 1-AA champion, vaulted to 5-0 in keeping its No. 1 ranking in the AP 1-A poll intact.
SouthWest’s defense held up admirably against the vaunted “Tarboro “T” offense, keeping it a 12-7 game into the fourth quarter. Tarboro punted on the second play of the fourth, but the Cougars’ offense could not move the football. After a punt of 13 yards that gave the Vikings possession just 32 yards from the end zone, the SouthWest defense, taxed to its limit, finally let up.
Cameron Powell’s 1-yard plunge gave Tarboro a two-possession lead at 18-7 with 7:32 remaining, and an 87-yard interception return by Tarboro quarterback/safety Kimani McDaniels accounted for the final margin with just 42.5 seconds to play.
The Cougars snuffed out Tarboro’s first sustained drive late in the first quarter. Senior Kedar Darden pounced on a Tarboro fumble at the SouthWest 22-yard line, and that set up a sustained march that was capped by a two-yard plunge by senior Cortezz Jones. Senior Hunter Hopkins added the PAT, giving the Cougars a 7-0 cushion with 10:45 to go before halftime.
“I’m so proud of our defense,” Cobb said. “We took it to them all night. They rose to the occasion. We have a young defense with eight juniors. I questioned all week how they would deal with Tarboro’s pound-it style, because we’ve been playing spreads. Boy, they rose to the occasion! I just wish our offense could make a few more plays to swing it our way.”
However, that didn’t happen. Tarboro responded with a sustained drive that ended with Travis Johnson’s 3-yard scoring run. The PAT missed, leaving the Cougars clinging to a 7-6 lead with 6:09 to go in the half.
SouthWest’s offense proceeded to turn it over on a rushed quarterback-center exchange deep in its own territory, but the defense ushered Tarboro off the field on a fourth-down stop of McDaniels by junior linebacker Demari Mabry.
The Cougars took over, and on first down, junior quarterback Ray Wooten had a wide-open receiver down the sideline, who couldn’t haul in the would-be touchdown. That led to a punt and a 41-yard TD scamper by McDaniels to put Tarboro up 12-7.
On the strength of Wooten to senior wide receiver Jacquez Dickens, SouthWest quickly moved the ball back into Tarboro territory. Wooten hit Dickens for 32 yards, and the Cougars eventually moved the ball to the Tarboro 3-yard line. But on fourth-and-goal from the 3 with a running clock, Wooten couldn’t hit 6-foot-4 senior wide receiver Keishon Porter on a fade route in the end zone.
In the latter stages of the third quarter, Jones rumbled 32 yards to the Tarboro 10. Yet the Cougars fumbled possession away on the very next play, allowing a third scoring chance to go to waste.
“Defensively, it was amazing,” Tarboro head coach Jeff Craddock said. “That was a great defensive performance. To keep going back out there in that third quarter, time and time and time when they were 40 yards and in and 30 yards and in and shutting the door, was tremendous.”
Dickens finished with three receptions for 78 yards as Porter fought through constant double teams on his side of the field. The two-sport standout finished with two receptions for 19 yards, but SouthWest threw the ball at a 9-for-23 clip for just 114 yards.
Senior Michael Hussey was credited with 15 total tackles for the Cougars from his defensive back spot. Junior Larry Jones had 12 and Darden added 11.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Cobb said. “The loss is hard to swallow. You were close an playing good enough to win this football game, but also, you left some opportunities out there. And that’s the game.”