CHAPEL HILL — It would normally be a clichè to say that both teams played like a champion, even in a game that actually had a title on the line.
But in the case of Saturday’s 2A high school football state final between Wallace-Rose Hill and Reidsville, it’s an accurate description.
The Bulldogs from Duplin County came into the game having won the last three 1AA crowns before moving up in classification this year. The Rams from Rockingham County were also defending champions, having brought home the 2A title in 2016 while running up a 31-game winning streak.
It was a matchup that took overtime to decide, with Wallace-Rose Hill earning an epic 35-28 victory at Kenan Stadium that validated the championship pedigree of both teams.
“You got to witness an unbelievable game because you saw two champions go head-to-head,” Bulldogs first-year coach Kevin Motsinger said. “How fitting that it went overtime. We’re blessed and fortunate to have come out on top.”
Both teams withstood the other’s best shot during a back-and-forth game that saw Motsinger’s Bulldogs jump out to the early advantage when Javonte Williams broke off a 73-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. Williams, who committed to North Carolina on Sunday, finished with 207 rushing yards and two touchdowns to earn MVP honors for the second straight year.
Wallace-Rose Hill (14-1) extended its advantage to 21-7 on the first of Desmond Newkirk’s two touchdown runs and a 97-yard interception return by Defensive MVP Quavion Basyden. The Bulldogs missed an opportunity to extend their lead late in the half when quarterback Michael Basden tripped coming out from center on a fourth-and-2 play at the Reidsville 12.
The defensive stand seemed to energize the Rams, who battled back into a tie by scoring in the final minute before halftime and again on the opening possession after the break, with running back Travion Canada getting into the end zone both times.
“You can’t look back, you have to look forward,” Reidsville coach Jimmy Teague said of his team’s attitude after falling behind. “We were only down one touchdown (at halftime), so we knew we had to score one more time than they did in the second half. We came out and that’s exactly what we did.”
Although Wallace-Rose Hill eventually regained the lead on a five-yard run by Williams, it was Reidsville (15-1) that went into overtime with the momentum after driving 93 yards on 12 plays for the tying touchdown with just 42 seconds remaining in regulation.
The situation became even more tenuous for the Bulldogs when a holding penalty and a false start on their extra possession set them back to the 19-yard line. But they quickly regained their composure.
Calling on the experience gained from their three previous championship game appearances and benefitting from a late hit call on their opponent, they dug their way out of the hole and into the end zone. Newkirk got the final yard on a 1-yard plunge off left tackle.
“I think everybody was kind of scared. But one thing about us, we don’t ever quit,” Newkirk said. “We can get penalties over and over and over, but we’re going to come and play, and we’re still going to have the best for our team.”
Like most teams, the players that make up Wallace-Rose Hill’s roster think of each other as brothers. Saturday, though, it was an actual pair of siblings that combined to make the play that clinched the Bulldogs’ fourth consecutive state title.
On second-and-goal from the 3, senior defensive end Rarkell Simmons stripped the ball from Reidsville’s Jalen Easley after stopping him for no gain. Simmons’ younger brother Elijah, a junior tackle, fell on the loose ball to end the game and touch off a wild celebration on one side of the field. On the other side, several Rams dropped to the ground in anguish.
Easley led his team with 120 rushing yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Titus Jones threw for 191 yards and a score in the loss.
“Their kids are champions, too, and they didn’t come here to lose,” Motsinger said. “They put their belt on the table and these boys brought their belt on the table from last year and winner take all. We just made one more play.”
Wallace-Rose Hill’s title put an exclamation point on a big day for Duplin County.
East Duplin and North Duplin also played for state championships on Saturday. Although East lost to Hibriten in the 2AA final earlier in the day in Chapel Hill and North fell to Cherokee for the 1A title at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, Motsinger proclaimed his county as the high school football capital of North Carolina.
It’s a designation Motsinger attributed to a strong community foundation.
“Duplin County is a farming county,” he said. “What are farmers? Farmers are hard-working, they’re family-oriented, they go to church, they get to work before sunup and they stay there until sundown. That’s where these kids come from.
“It’s that worker mentality, it’s that family mentality. That’s why you had North Duplin and East Duplin and Wallace-Rose Hill. You just roll your sleeves up and find a daggum way.”