Rams rally to win

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 16, 2004

CREEKSVILLE – Thomas Peoples and Keon Shoulars wanted just one more minute to savor the sweet taste of victory here Saturday night.

Mere moments after a thrilling 34-32 win by Northampton-East over North Johnston in the opening round of NCHSAA Class 1-AA state play-offs, the two senior co-captains knelt near the 20-yardline and quietly rejoiced in prayer.

&uot;That’s what it’s all about,&uot; said East skipper H.B. Harris, pointing to the pair. &uot;They’ve been with this program since they were freshmen. They’ve been through the losing seasons. They’ve heard the boos….and now this, to hear the cheers of satisfaction because of their efforts.&uot;

Harris continued, &uot;These guys left nothing on the field. They played with the heart of a champion. They played with a desire to not let this be the final game of their career.&uot;

That desire paid off as the Rams (7-5 overall), seeded seventh in the 16-team, eastern 1-AA bracket, will now travel to #2 Wallace-Rose Hill this Friday (Nov. 19) for a 7:30 p.m., second-round matchup. NCHS-East, who hasn’t participated in post-season play since the 1997 season, haven’t advanced past the first round since defeating Chocowinity, 43-6, in its 1995 state play-off opener.

It wasn’t that easy this time around as it took a 33-yard touchdown pass from Travis Mason to Jeremy Taylor with 50 seconds remaining to end a three-hour scoring marathon – one where the two clubs combined for 10 TD’s and 672 yards of total offense. Mason, then as a defensive safety, sealed the win with an interception at his own 40 yardline with two seconds left.

&uot;We didn’t start celebrating until Travis made that pick,&uot; noted Harris. &uot;North Johnston has an outstanding football team, one very capable of putting points on the board in a big hurry.&uot;

But the Rams proved they were no slouch themselves when it came to lighting-up the scoreboard with big plays. Of their five touchdowns, the shortest was the game-winning score.

On the game’s opening possession, NCHS-East drove 74 yards in eight plays. The final snap of that drive came on a 4th-and-3 play where Demonte Lassiter took the handoff from Mason and darted up the middle. Thirty-six yards later, Lassiter stood in the endzone. Coupled with Mason’s conversion run, the Rams owned an 8-0 lead at the 8:55 mark of the first quarter.

The visiting Panthers, who brought an 8-3 overall record and a #10 seed into the game, answered with a nice drive of their own. Starting at their own 45 yardline after a squib kick-off, North Johnston used nine plays to cover 55 yards. Adrian Briscoe covered the final 17 yards for the score. The conversion run failed, leaving the Rams with an 8-6 lead at the 4:14 mark of the first period.

It didn’t take NCHS-East very long to answer when, five plays and 64 yards later, Lassiter had his number called again and responded by dicing through the Panthers defense en route to a 43-yard TD scamper. The conversion run failed, leaving the Rams with a 14-6 advantage with 1:36 left in a first quarter shootout.

Lassiter finished with a game-high 166 rushing yards on 19 carries, accounting for over one-half of the Rams’ 303 total yards.

Not to feel left out of the offensive fireworks, the Panthers answered, aided by a bizarre play. Facing a 3rd-and-10 at its own 40 yardline, senior quarterback Brad Holloman lofted a pass in the direction of fellow senior Damien Allen. Mason was defending on the play. He leaped in front of Allen and appeared to make the interception, but the ball bounced off his shoulder pads and into the waiting hands of Allen, who scampered 48 yards to the Rams 12.

Three plays later, Holloman scored the first of his three rushing touchdowns on a six-yard option keeper. Holloman – who led the Panthers with 245 total yards (142 passing and 103 on the ground) – called his own number again on the conversion run, a successful play that deadlocked the score at 14-all at the 10:39 mark of the second quarter.

That stalemate last exactly 17 seconds when Greg Boone gathered in the ensuing kickoff at his own five yardline, mustered up a full head of steam and raced up the middle 95 yards for a touchdown. Chris Price ran in the conversion, staking the Rams to a 22-14 lead.

Back came the Panthers, who took the ensuing kickoff and set sail on an eight-play, 65-yard drive capped by Holloman’s three-yard run. The conversion failed, leaving the visitors with a two-point deficit (22-20) just prior to the midway mark of the second quarter.

Despite both offenses running full throttle, two key defensive plays kept it a 22-20 score at halftime.

An interception by Briscoe set-up North Johnston at the Rams 36 yardline with just under five minutes left until the break. The Panthers muscled the ball inside the Rams’ five. There, on a 1st-and-goal play, Briscoe lost the handle and Price recovered at the one.

The Panthers got that score back early in the third quarter where, on the second snap of the second half, Holloman laid a perfect 59-yard scoring strike into the hands of Allen, staking the visitors to their first lead of the night at 26-22.

Ninety-three seconds later, the Rams were back on top at 28-26 when, three plays after the ensuing kickoff, Mason burst up the middle and raced 45 yards, untouched, to the endzone.

It appeared that score would hold, especially after a critical defensive stand by the Rams as successive stops by Melvin Rogers, Shoulars, Price and John Dale forced the Panthers to surrender possession on loss of downs after North Johnston had driven from their own 32 to the East three yardline.

However, four plays later, a shanked punt allowed the Panthers to set-up shop at the NCHS-East 15 yardline. From there, it took the guests only two plays to score with Holloman darting 15 yards for the TD. The conversion run failed, but the Panthers held a 32-28 lead with 5:26 left in the game.

With their backs against the wall, NCHS-East responded.

Sparked by a 28-yard kick-off return by Boone, East began what proved to be their game-winning drive at their own 45 yardline. Three plays later, the Rams faced a 4th-and-5 play at midfield. Mason, running a sweep, dove towards the first-down marker and succeeded in keeping the drive alive. He added another key fourth down run just moments later, scrambling two yards on a 4th-and-1 play. On the next snap, Mason delivered the game-winning pass to Taylor, who first bobbled the catch before cradling the pass into his midsection and setting off a celebration along the home sideline.

&uot;We weren’t just satisfied in making the play-offs after all these years,&uot; Harris concluded. &uot;We came here to win. These young men are playing a lot better than I’m coaching. Their hard work and diligence is paying off. My hat is off to these players and to the coaches who are making our game plan work.&uot;