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As Brian Foster has told his Southern Nash High football players over the years, “Just because you deserve something, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”
With double-digit wins each of the last four seasons and 110 victories since 2009, the Firebirds — with a program-record 14-0 mark and the top seed out of 16 teams in the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A East bracket — certainly can make a case for deserving to reach the state championship game for the first time in program history.
But Southern Nash’s opponent in Friday’s state 3-A East final can say the same thing. Eastern Alamance (14-0), seeded No. 3, has gone 44-10 in the past four seasons but with no state championship appearances in that time. In fact, the Eagles have won at least nine games in every season since 2005, except 2015 when the use of an ineligible player wiped out 14 victories, including a 35-20 win over Southern Nash in the second round of the playoffs.
“You hear people tell you all the time, you deserve this, you deserve that,” Foster said. “If you look at what they’ve done the last 10-12 years, they deserve it as much as anyone.”
Eastern Alamance, under the direction of long-time head coach John Kirby, certainly has been a contender at the state level since he took over during the 1991 season. The Eagles lost back-to-back state 3-A championship games to West Rowan in 2009 and 2010 and have just three losing seasons on the field under Kirby.
“I think both of our teams believe in what they do, even though it’s different,” Foster said.
Besides the 2015 playoff game, the Firebirds and Eagles have a budding postseason rivalry that will only be enhanced by Friday’s outcome. Southern Nash walloped Eastern Alamance 62-20 in the second round in 2017 while the Eagles took their revenge in an epic 57-56 triumph in the second round last season.
The latter game has weighed on the Firebirds’ minds since. Southern Nash lost senior Zonovan Knight, the school’s all-time leading rusher, to an ankle injury in the first half. Quinton Cooley, the other half of the Firebirds’ dynamic duo, put forth a legendary effort, rushing for a school-record 403 yards despite repeatedly having to pop a dislocated shoulder back into place. But the only loss for the Firebirds after 10 wins proved to be yet another disappointing finish well before the state final.
Foster downplayed the notion that revenge is a primary motivator for his team this time around.
“We try to not even talk about the other team,” he said. “We talk about their plays and players as far as what they do, but we talk about Southern Nash and what we need to do against the opponent.”
While the Firebirds may have added incentive, the Eagles will have at least the familiarity of defending Southern Nash’s double-wing offense, which can be a headache for defenses encountering it for the first time.
“You can always tell the first time we play somebody, compared to when you play them two or three times,” Foster said.
Both teams have prolific offenses as Southern Nash’s 661 total points ranks No. 3 in all classifications in the state while Eastern Alamance is sixth overall with 624. The Eagles, champions of the 2-A/3-A Mid-State Conference, blistered Hunt 48-14 in the opening round of the playoffs before crushing Jacksonville Northside 42-13 in the second round. The latter triumph proved costly as sensational sophomore wide receiver Darius Kane, with 1,142 yards and 16 TDs on 38 catches, broke his collarbone and was lost for the season.
In a battle of Southern Nash postseason tormentors, Eastern Alamance faced No. 2 Havelock last Friday night in Craven County. The Rams of first-year head coach Allen Wooten, formerly of Greene Central, had been averaging more than 38 points per game in November. The game was scoreless until the fourth quarter when the Eagles took a 7-0 lead then doubled it after a Havelock fumble deep in its own territory led to another TD. Eastern Alamance prevailed 21-7 to earn a return trip to Stanhope.
Foster didn’t make much of the low-scoring game, only to say, “I think both of their defenses are pretty good, but you play this time of year on wet fields and it changes everything.”
Two of the main culprits in the Eagles’ win at Southern Nash last season are back — quarterback Austin Bryant and running back Colby May. Both are seniors. Bryant has piled up 2,878 yards and 43 TDs on 145-of-273 passing (53.7%) out of Kirby’s spread attack, while May leads the Eagles with 1,119 rushing yards and 15 TDs on the ground.
The Eagles are athletic and skillful and, as they showed last season, match up well with the Firebirds. But Foster believes his defense this year (minus injured senior outside linebacker Xavier Burgess) stacks up better than the one the Eagles saw last year when the secondary lost three mainstays — Knight, Cooley and Matt Foster.
“That’s not a badmouthing of the kids we had last year,” Brian Foster said. “We had a lot of injuries and even in that game, some of our best cover people didn’t play.”
The current Firebirds defense has relied on a cast of seniors — Devonte Edmundson, Jason Bland, Izaiah Walker-Warren, Daylon Whitley and Cameron Thompson — along with juniors Terrence Raspberry and Luke Coble, to force 28 turnovers.
Southern Nash will counter with an explosive offense that reeled off 59 straight points after spotting Fayetteville Terry Sanford a 14-0 lead in the opening minutes of the second-round game Friday in Stanhope. Cooley is the warhead of the Firebirds missile, leading the state in rushing yards (2,633), total TDs (51) and total points (334).
While Matt Foster has put up impressive numbers — 1,115 rushing yards and 669 passing yards — and sophomore Jackson Vick (929 yards, 11 TDs) has been a splendid complement to Cooley, the 5-foot-8, 193-pound Wake Forest University commit is the heart and soul of this Firebirds team.
“I think he’s the perfect example of somebody that playing football means the world to him,” Brian Foster said. “I think that’s the key to Quinton, is that everybody (on the team) knows how much it means to him to be a part of this team.”
With Cooley planning an early graduation and January enrollment at Wake Forest, his high school days are quickly slipping away. There is an urgency to make this year the one when the Firebirds finally step onto the state championship stage.
Foster reminds that “the best team doesn’t always win” and “you’ve got to make plays,” all wisdom gleaned from a career heading into its third decade. While the fire to at least play for a state title, if not win it, burns brightly, Foster said that nothing will sully what has been a very special season at Southern Nash.
“I feel at peace about it,” he said.