NCHSAA Football Roundup: Ground game, heady play earns East Duplin first title

East Lincoln, Mount Airy and New Bern also won state crowns

New Bern head coach Torrey Nowell gets a water bath after his team defeated Grimsley 40-28 in the NCHSAA 4A football championship game on Friday in Chapel Hill. (PJ Brown / North State Journal)

CHAPEL HILL — In terms of experience, it was one of the biggest mismatches in the history of North Carolina’s high school state football tournament. But that just set the stage for some Cinderella magic.

East Duplin controlled the clock to choke off a powerful Reidsville offense and used some high football IQ to pull off the deciding play in a 24-21 upset that earned the Panthers their first state title in school history, beating a Rams team that has won the title more than any other school in North Carolina.

Reidsville, the top seed in the 2A bracket at 14-1, entered on a roll, having trailed for all of three minutes in five playoff games and winning by a combined 224-60 margin. The Rams were looking for their 20th state title and fifth in seven seasons. East Duplin, meanwhile, hadn’t been to the championship game since 2017 and was 0 for 5 in previous trips to the game.

“We’re very proud of our football team,” East Duplin coach Battle Holley said. “We fought to the end, just like we have all year. Now we get to do something that hasn’t ever been done before, and that’s win a state championship.”

Holley drew up a game plan to neutralize the Reidsville attack by preventing them from having the ball. The Rams got the ball just three times in the first half, for all of nine minutes, while East Duplin had drives of four minutes, six and a half minutes and five and a half minutes.

The Panthers won time of possession for the game by a 31:24 to 16:36 margin, including holding the ball for 9:38 of the opening 12-minute quarter and 10:01 of the final quarter.

A crushing ground game was key for East Duplin. Avery Gaby, who won Offensive MVP honors for East Duplin, carried the ball 37 times for 184 yards and a score. Nizaya Hall added 94 yards on 14 carries. The Panthers threw the ball just twice in the game, completing one for the game-winning touchdown with 2:16 remaining in the game.

East Duplin jumped out on top, taking the opening kick and capping a methodical drive with a Gaby 1-yard run in the first quarter, then held Reidsville in check until the Rams got a Dionte Neal catch from Al Lee to tie the game at the half.

Reidsville got the second-half kickoff and appeared poised to take its first lead as the Rams lined up for a 27-yard field goal attempt. But East Duplin’s Rodrigo Sanchez went through the middle of the line and blocked the kick.

“I just went up at 100 percent,” said Sanchez, who was voted Defensive MVP for the Panthers. “I felt it hit my forearm and just got excited.”

His excitement would only grow immediately after the play. A Reidsville player picked up the ball and stood with it, apparently unaware the play was still live.

East Duplin’s Elam Moore knew, however, and plucked the ball out of his hands, returning it 70 yards to give the Panthers a 14-7 lead they would not relinquish.

“It was just knowing the game from experience,” Moore said. “The ball didn’t cross the line of scrimmage, so I just took it from him and ran it back. I was so glad I had (his teammates) behind me blocking.”

East Duplin entered the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead, but Reidsville wouldn’t go away. The Rams got a 40-yard touchdown from Lee to Jaden McCain to cut the lead to three. Lee was 15 of- 26 for 195 yards on the day. It was McCain’s only catch, although he had two solo tackles, three assists and a fumble recovery on defense.

When East Duplin appeared to ice the game with a late touchdown from quarterback Zack Brown to Kade Kennedy — the team’s only completion of the day, Reidsville responded with an 83-yard kickoff return for a score by Dionte Neal, who finished with two touchdowns and 164 all-purpose yards.

The resulting onside kick didn’t go 10 yards, however, and East Duplin was able to run out the final 2:03 to earn its first crown.

“We did it. We did it,” Holley said. “It was our time. We did it, and it goes back all the way from when coach (Brian) Aldridge first came to East Duplin and had great teams to get close. … These guys had a lot of faith all year. They believed in each other. I’ve had some good teams, but this was probably one of the best teams — to be able to get along, care for each other, love one another.”

1A championship: Mount Airy 20, Tarboro 7

Tarboro’s Omarion Lewis sits on the ground in disappointment after throwing an interception during Saturday’s NCHSAA 1A football championship game against Tarboro in Raleigh. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

No. 4 seed Mount Airy won its first state title since 2008 and seventh overall, beating defending champion Tarboro and denying the Vikings of winning a third straight title and fifth in six years.

Junior running back Tyler Mason was all the offense Mount Airy needed. He ran 23 times for 139 yards and scored three rushing touchdowns to account for all of the Granite Bears’ scoring. Mount Airy threw just four passes in the game, completing one. Walker Stroup led Mount Airy on defense with nine tackles and a forced fumble to cut short a Tarboro drive in the fourth quarter. The Vikings would not get the ball back. Stroup also punted for the Bears, averaging 39.7 yards and downing two of his three inside the 20. Tarboro had 119 rushing yards from Kamerin McDowell-Moore.

3A championship: East Lincoln 30, Northern Nash 15

No. 4 seed East Lincoln capped an undefeated 16-0 season by knocking off top seed Northern Nash, earning its third state title and first since 2014. East Lincoln broke open the game with 17 second-quarter points. Quarterback Tyler Mizzell threw two touchdowns to earn game MVP honors while UVA commit Keandre Walker had five catches for 41 yards and a touchdown to earn top offensive player honors. East Lincoln’s defense got three interceptions and a fumble recovery to keep Northern Nash’s offense in check. West Virginia commit Ben Cutter led the way with 10 tackles from his linebacker spot, earning defensive MVP honors. Northern Nash was led by Carson Jenkins, who had 20 tackles in the game, while quarterback Keno Jones threw for 224 yards and had a touchdown passing and running. East Lincoln kicker Christopher Mileta also tied a state championship record with three field goals.

4A championship: New Bern 40, Grimsley 28

Unbeaten New Bern knocked off top seed Grimsley to win its fourth state title and first since 2014. It also became the first team to win a state title without throwing a pass since 2017. New Bern was led by Aronne Herring, who ran for 161 yards and two touchdowns, including a 66-yarder, and Damaree Tucker, who added 105 yards and two touchdowns, including a 36-yarder. The New Bern defense also held Grimsley to 102 passing yards, with 85 coming on one play — a touchdown from Ryan Stephens to Terrell Anderson. No’Tavien Green led New Bern with a 49-yard interception return, five solo tackles, six assists, a forced fumble and a sack. FSU commit K.J. Sampson had five solos, five assists and 1.5 tackles for loss.