CHAPEL HILL — The Vance High football team was dominant through the first three quarters of its 4AA state championship game against Leesville Road on Saturday.
And yet, all the Cougars had to show for their effort was a slim 7-point lead, close enough that one mistake, one missed assignment, one slip on the wet Kenan Stadium turf could doom Vance to a similar fate to the one it suffered the year before.
Vance lost the 2018 4AA final to Wake Forest when a fumble in the end zone in the final minute of regulation led to a game-deciding safety.
With the memory of that disappointment still fresh in their minds, the Cougars (13-2) weren’t about to let history repeat itself. So after squandering several earlier scoring opportunities, they scored two fourth quarter touchdowns to pull away for a 24-3 victory and the first state title in school history.
“It fueled us. It put a fire inside of us,” junior linebacker/running back Power Echols said of last year’s loss. “We weren’t going to be denied.”
Echols did his part to put his team over the top by making six tackles on defense and scoring the clinching touchdown on a 14-yard run with just under two minutes remaining to earn game MVP honors.
He was part of a swarming Vance defense that held Leesville Road to just 80 total yards and forced five turnovers — four fumbles and an interception.
The most damaging of those miscues for the Pride came early in the second quarter when running back Tiawan Moore fumbled a handoff in the backfield on the first play after a change of possession. Vance’s Jalen Swindell recovered at the Leesville Road 27, but while scrambling for the ball quarterback Trey Baker suffered what appeared to be a dislocated elbow.
Although Baker was only 2 of 4 for 34 yards at the time, he did lead his team to a field goal on the previous drive and appeared to be finding a rhythm. Leesville Road (13-1) was only able to muster five more first downs the rest of the way.
But that, coach Ben Kolstad said, had more to do with Vance’s defense than the performance of backup quarterback Ethan Burchfield.
“We turned it over five times and our defense was on the field a long time,” said Kolstad, whose team was making its first state final appearance. “I thought our defense played really well. A lot of them were short fields.
“But it hurts (losing a starting quarterback), especially when you’re playing a pressure team. Ethan didn’t get a whole lot of reps this year. It wasn’t just on him.”
Despite all those short fields, Kolstad’s defense allowed only an early touchdown on a jump ball that turned into an 84-yard pass from Austin Grier to Jordan Payne and a short field goal on the next-to-last play of the first half before running out of gas in the final 12 minutes.
According to defensive tackle/fullback Tylik Caine, gas isn’t the only thing the Pride ran out of in the fourth quarter.
“I think a couple guys just let up and it wasn’t really football,” he said. “It was more of we lost our heart.”
Vance, on the other hand, used the disappointment that remained from the previous year as motivation to finish with a flourish.
Although first-year coach Glenwood Ferebee said he was confident in his team’s ability to protect the lead to the end, his offense took the guesswork out of it by getting touchdowns from freshman Daylan Smothers and Echols.
“I felt sick,” Cougars senior linebacker/tight end Stefon Thompson said, describing the feeling he had after coming so close to the title last year. “I was like, ‘I put all that work in for no reason.’ But when I think of it now, it happened for a reason. Now we’re the state championship and we won. Everything is just a blessing.”
East Forsyth’s two quick scores give it edge in 4A win over Cardinal Gibbons
CHAPEL HILL — The matchup between the East Forsyth Eagles and Cardinal Gibbons Crusaders was as even as it gets, with the exception of one decisive 19-second stretch midway through the second quarter.
East Forsyth (13-2) scored two touchdowns during that span en route to a 24-21 win to successfully defend its 4A state title.
The first came on a 56-yard pass from Ty’Shaun Lyles to Jamison Warren, tying the game at 14. The second came one play from scrimmage later when Gibbons running back Jack Grazen fumbled while struggling for extra yardage. The loose ball was picked up by Jordan Timmons and returned nine yards for another Eagles score.
Other than that, the teams played a virtual standoff. East Forsyth gained 337 total yards while Gibbons managed 328. The Eagles had the ball for 24:11 of possession time, the Crusaders (12-3) had it for 23:49.
A 31-yard field goal late in the third quarter by Andrew Conrad gave East Forsyth a 24-14 lead that was enough to withstand a late Gibbons touchdown pass from Andrew Harvey to Cameron Noble. Grazen returned from an injury in the first half to gain 75 yards to surpass the 2,000-yard rushing mark for the season.
Shipley, Weddington repeat as 3A champs with victory against Lee County
RALEIGH — Weddington rode the talented legs of five-star running back Will Shipley, the Gatorade N.C. Player of the Year, to a second consecutive 3A state championship and third in the last four years. The talented junior earned MVP honors by rushing for 256 yards and four touchdowns on 26 carries for the Warriors in their 34-14 win over Lee County at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium.
With Shipley scoring on runs of four and 67 yards and Bryson Parker scooping up a punt blocked by teammate Malik Mustapha, Weddington (16-0) jumped out to a 21-0 first half lead and never looked back.
Colin Johnson scored both touchdowns for Lee County, which finished at 15-1 while making its first trip to a state final.
Charlotte Catholic tops Southern Nash, three-peats as 3AA champs
RALEIGH — Charlotte Catholic (12-3) did all their damage in the second half, breaking out of a scoreless duel through the first two periods to roll to their third straight title with a 23-7 win in the 3AA championship game over Southern Nash.
After Cole Knapp finally broke the ice with a field goal midway through the third quarter and Southern Nash (15-1) took a brief lead on a 1-yard run by Quinton Cooley, his 49th of the season, the Cougars put the ball in the hands of running back Paul Neel and the game MVP did the rest.
He scored on a 39-yard run on the first play of the final quarter, then ran nine yards for another touchdown before teammate Jimmy Brewer put the game away with an 18-yard run with just under three minutes remaining.