Firebirds hold off Gryphons 35-21 in battle of Big East unbeatens

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STANHOPE — Pushed as hard as it has been all season, the Southern Nash High football team made sure it was the only unbeaten team left in the 3-A Big East Conference after Friday’s home game against Rocky Mount.

The Gryphons, 7-0 coming into the game, tied the score late in the third quarter to put the Firebirds, 6-0 and ranked No. 5 in The Associated Press 3-A poll entering the game, in a position they hadn’t been in all year. But Southern Nash junior Quinton Cooley ran in a 30-yard touchdown in the last minute of the third quarter and senior Zonovan Knight punched it into the end zone in the fourth quarter to seal the 35-21 win for the Firebirds.

Southern Nash, now 3-0 in Big East play, overcame second-half fumbles by Knight and Cooley to hand the Gryphons of head coach Jason Battle their first loss in four Big East outings.

“I have a lot of respect for Jason and Rocky MOunt. They’ve always been good to me and my family,” Firebirds head coach Brian Foster said. “And I think they respect us too. I think their kids played hard and our kids played hard.”

After Southern Nash was forced to punt for the first time all season, a fumble recovery by Armando Dellavalle on Gryphons quarterback Jacquan Lynch’s third-down run midway the fourth quarter ended a Rocky Mount drive before it began. Several plays later, Knight, who finished with 285 yards on 23 carries on the night he became the Firebirds’ all-time leading rusher, found the end zone from six yards. Carlos Garcia’s fifth extra-point kick gave Southern Nash a two-touchdown lead with 3:26 to go.

Knight surpassed Tracey Coppedge’s career rushing record of 4,157 yards on his first carry of the second half, a 50-yarder. 

Daylon Whitley’s 5-yard TD run with 2:05 to play in the first quarter gave the Firebirds the lead. Junior quarterback Matt Foster connected with Daniel Batchelor on a 9-yard TD pass in the second quarter before Tayshaun Lawrence’s 34-yard TD run and Saylor Newton’s PAT kick gave the Gryphons their first points.

However, Cooley scooted 7 yards for a TD with 31 seconds left in the half to put the Firebirds up 21-7.

Lawrence and Lynch had second-half TD runs, the latter by Lynch with 1:35 to go in the third that tied the score 21-all. It was the first time all season Southern Nash has been tied in the second half. It didn’t last long as Cooley’s 30-yard run gave Southern Nash the lead for keeps. He finished with 124 yards on 18 carries.

Rocky Mount’s final desperation drive ended when Firebirds defensive back Jackson Vick intercepted Lynch.

Brian Foster noted the play of backup center Pedro Vargas who came in for injured starter Luke Watson.

“I thought the kids played well but we’ve just got to get healthy, that’s for sure,” the Firebirds coach said.