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In some ways, a 59-21 victory over Fayetteville Terry Sanford in the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs released frustrations that had been stewing with the Southern Nash football team for a long time.
After going down 14-0 early, the top-seeded Firebirds scored 59-straight points to relieve symptoms of what players perceive as a reputation for being cursed in the playoffs.
“It feels really great to get out of the second round because they always say we’ve got a curse,” senior running back Quinton Cooley said. “Now we’re headed into the fourth round.”
The ‘Southern Nash curse’ was something Cooley mentioned multiple times unprompted on Friday night. Coming into the game, it had been 10 years since the team had reached the East finals — when even its oldest players were still learning how to play the game — but that trend has been replaced.
By downing the Bulldogs, the Firebirds achieved 14 wins on the year — preserving the longest undefeated start a season and the most single-season wins in program history.
The number, at first, didn’t seem to mean much to head coach Brian Foster, but upon further digging brought out an underlying pride about what kind of program he and others have built in Stanhope.
“It tells me that all the groups before put a lot in it to get us to this point,” Foster said. “All our coaches that have been here, former coaches that have been with me. There’s a lot of things that we’ve had to do to get to this point. And we’ve been close a lot. But you know, it’s a hard thing to do.”
Among many stout teams the Firebirds have fielded under Foster, this one has already set itself apart in some ways. Regardless of what happens ahead, that fact won’t change.
One thing was running through senior quarterback Matt Foster’s head when he saw the Bulldogs score early, force a fumble on the Firebirds opening kick return and then score again on the next play — remain calm.
“After the first touchdown, I told them to stay calm. ‘We’re going to score,’” Foster said. “We fumbled the kickoff, I still told them to stay calm. I mean, I think we’re going to score points on anybody. We just get the ball and we’re fine. After that we got that, I told everybody to stay calm. We scored, got a stop, then we scored again and we scored 59 unanswered points just like that.”
That confidence from the veteran signal caller underscored what came after. Southern Nash was not denied on a single offensive drive all game, flipping the game from a two-score deficit to a 15-14 lead by the end of the first quarter.
No teams have done to the Firebirds what the Bulldogs did early, but Cooley took over from there. Out of eight touchdowns on the night, Cooley scored six, doing exactly what Terry Sanford had hoped to prevent with the ball in his hands.
“When we get going offensively, we feel good about what we do,” Brian Foster said. “I thought Quinton played well tonight and got us going a little bit.”
Cooley’s big return
After giving up five-straight touchdowns in the first half, the last thing Terry Sanford head coach Bruce McClelland had hoped to do when his offense was stopped on third down was punt the ball to Cooley.
But that’s exactly what his team did, giving the back an opportunity to juke his way to the end zone as the most electric play of a six-touchdown, 154-yard night.
“We practiced all week kicking the ball out of bounds,” McClelland said. “So you don’t kick to 20. They had no timeouts, we don’t run the ball, we don’t run the clock out, so we shouldn’t have been kicking to him.”
While McClelland stood on the visitor sideline hoping his team didn’t kick to Cooley, the star running back pulled aside Brian Foster on his own sideline and expressed doubt about whether he could do anything with an opportunity to score one more time on a punt return.
The Firebirds have not practiced punt returns nearly as much as the team has wanted this season, but Foster reassured Cooley that he knew what to do before he trotted out to await the punt.
“He’s just a special kid...” Brian Foster said later. “Just a great guy. I’m glad he’s on our team.”
With a minute until halftime, a one-hop bounce reached Cooley’s hands in the Firebirds territory with a gaping hole opening along the hash mark. Three cuts later, Cooley made a turn toward the left corner of the end zone, outran the final defender and gave his team a 45-14 lead with seconds remaining before the half.
Terry Sanford knew it was just about already over, even with a half left to be played.
“That end to the first half really put us behind where we knew that unless they turned it over multiple times, it was going to be a long night,” McClelland lamented.
Though the Firebirds have found a way past previous roadblocks and trends, another one stands in the way of a berth to the 3-A state championship game on Friday.
Southern Nash will host Eastern Alamance on Friday, the program that ended it season in 2018. The opportunity presents itself as one more chance for the team to exorcise its demons.
Though the Firebirds celebrated their win that set up another matchup with the Eagles, they expressed they aren’t ready to be done yet.
“Any win, it feels good coming off of it, but we’ve got to stay focused for next week,” quarterback Matt Foster said. “We’ve got unfinished business, that’s all it is.”
A common theme driving the seniors is knowing each game forward could be their last in a Firebirds jersey. With at least one and as many as two games remaining, the program doesn’t want to waste the opportunity to be one of the few teams in the state still alive.
“At this point, it doesn’t matter if you’re 10-4, 9-5,” Brian Foster. “You get to play another game if you win the game tonight and that’s what is most important.”
With the SouthWest Edgecombe High varsity football team advancing into the third round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association playoffs in 2019, the program’s reputation as one of the most formidable in the 2-A ranks was strengthened.
The Cougars have advanced into the postseason all seven seasons under the direction of head coach Jonathan Cobb. SouthWest advanced beyond the first round for the third consecutive season and, in four of Cobb’s seven seasons, it has played the day after Thanksgiving.
SouthWest, which finished with a 12-2 record -- one win shy of the program benchmark -- has either won outright or shared the Eastern Plains Conference championship the last five seasons. Double-digit wins each season has become commonplace.
The proverbial bar was set highest in 2015 when the Cougars reached but were unsuccessful in the 2-A East Region final.
Program pride was strongly evident after Friday night’s 35-20 loss at home to Elizabeth City Northeastern.
Certainly, however, the satisfaction isn’t ultimate.
“It’s been a good run,” Cobb said. “But we want to get past that third round. We want that state championship here,” Cobb declared.
The Cougars, No. 2-seeded in the East Region, thought 2019 could be the year.
“We had a dream, a vision,” Cobb lamented.
For the last 16 seasons, a member of the Cobb family has functioned as SouthWest’s head coach.
Raymond Cobb functioned as the head coach from 2004 through 2012. His son, Jonathan Cobb, assumed the position in 2013 and remains there.
The 16 seasons have produced 145 victories as compared to 60 losses. In nine seasons, Raymond Cobb’s teams compiled a 79-32 record. Jonathan Cobb-directed teams have gone 66-28 the last seven campaigns.
The Cougars, during that span, own seven conference titles and qualified for the playoffs all 16 years. Jonathan Cobb’s teams own five Eastern Plains crowns, while Raymond Cobb’s squads seized conference championships in 2006 and 2009. The best start in program history was the 13-0 worksheet of Raymond Cobb’s 2009 team. Raymond Cobb’s teams competed in the 3-A ranks from 2005-08.
WANTED STATE TITLE
With SouthWest’s season completed after 15 weeks, fans get the opportunity to see if 6-foot-4, 180-pound senior Keishon Porter is as sensational on the basketball court as he was on the football field from his wide receiver position.
Porter has signed a basketball scholarship with NCAA Division I Radford University. He plans to join the Cougars’ boys basketball team immediately and participate in all three games scheduled for this week.
Yet, Porter wasn’t ready for the warmer confines of the gym after Friday night’s loss.
“I want to keep playing,” Porter commented. “It hit me when I saw the disappointment of my teammates. I wanted the state championship. This will be the last time I will play football.
(Northeastern) was a beatable team. But we made too many mistakes (three interceptions and two lost fumbles) and they capitalized.”
TOUGH AT THE END
In last Friday night’s waning minutes, composure and poise became a testy issue for both teams for obviously opposite reasons. Contact and flare-ups occurred.
As SouthWest head coach Jonathan Cobb suggested, “human nature” kicked in.
“We certainly want to win and lose with class,” Cobb emphasized. “It just hurt our kids. I didn’t think we did anything bad and we got it together at the end.
“But these young people had a lot invested.”
Cougars senior Cortezz Jones, who turned in a courageous performance despite a leg injury, attempted to conceal his dejection with a positive approach.
“We may have taken the L(oss),” Jones admitted, “but, as players, we have a big W(in) in our hearts. We played the game with passion and heart. We all gave it everything we had.
“(Northeastern) is a good ball team; they had a lot of good players.”
SouthWest junior offensive lineman John Barrett cited the Eagles abundance of talented players and wished them the best in defending their region title at Clinton on Friday night.
Barrett noted he played sparingly last season but, through hard work and study, developed as a mainstay in an imposing SouthWest offensive line this season.
“It has been an amazing experience,” Barrett summarized. “Everything tonight helped me so much.
Regarding the third-round test, the 5-foot-11, 210-pound junior reported: “We studied all week in practice and went over every possible scenario. We tried to adapt. Sometimes we did; sometimes we didn’t.
“Defensive wise, we could have done a few things better. But it was not a terrible performance.”
Like the other underclassmen, Barrett derived motivation from the emotional evening.
“I want to come out next year and be a vocal and physical leader,” he said. “I’m going to do anything I can for the coaches and do what they ask.”
Elizabeth City Northeastern started the game offensively in a spread scheme and, in the second quarter, shifted to a power-I formation. The Eagles attacked from the power-I much of the contest’s remainder.
“We started off in the spread and had a little success early,” Northeastern head coach Antonio Moore. “But in the power-I, we were moving the ball a little better, and we stayed with it.”
Cobb explained a two-headed Northeastern offense has existed for years.
“They’ve always done that,” SouthWest’s head coach contended. “When they’re behind, they run the spread; when they’re ahead, they run the power-I and try to milk the clock.”
And as Barrett assured: “They were effective in both.”
TWO COUGARS’ LOOKS
SouthWest’s offense eventually became two-pronged.
Aided by Cortezz Jones’ return of the opening kickoff and junior Anthony Mayes’ fumble recovery on the kickoff following the first TD, the Cougars’ wishbone struck for two TDs in the first five minutes.
From that point, Northeastern’s defense allowed virtually nothing. The Cougars wound up with a season-low 167 yards total offense.
Thus, the shotgun, featuring Porter, became more prominent in the second half. That formation generated a TD but also yielded three interceptions.
“With our regular stuff, we were not able to run the football,” Cobb explained. “We could try to get the football to KP (Porter) about every other play, or try something different (the shotgun) and try to get more people involved.”
But by then, the Eagles were adversity-resistant.
“I told our kids they would eventually have to fight adversity,” Moore remarked. “It was going to start at some point. It started early and we knew it could happen. I told the guys they had to play through it.”