HCHS seniors shine in state playoff opener

Published 8:11 am Monday, November 6, 2023

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Sports Correspondent

AHOSKIE – If last Friday night was the final time Hertford County High’s senior football players grace their home turf, then they made it a memorable one.

Knotted 36-all with under six and a half minutes to play, senior running back Elijah Outlaw broke a 76 yard run to daylight and sealed a win as the Bears held off St. Pauls, 44-36, to win their Class 2A NC High School Athletic Association playoff opener.

“Kids made some big plays in the fourth quarter, and that’s what we needed down the stretch,” first-year head coach Ronald Gatling said after collecting his first-ever post-season win. “Our offense was doing real great.”

So was the Blue-and-Gold defense. On the Bulldogs’ last possession, and in Hertford County territory near mid-field at the 45 yard line, quarterback sacks by Bears defenders Keonte Coatney and Devonte Cofield helped seal the deal; with Cofield’s sack coming on fourth down with eight ticks left on the clock. He also recovered a fumble in the first half.

But the night belonged to Outlaw. The senior speedster rushed for 276 yards. Earlier he had thrilled the crowd with an electrifying run to daylight of 35 yards late in the third quarter that gave the home team a lead it would not relinquish.

And he didn’t just shine on offense. He also had a sack just before halftime.

“He played a heckuva game on both sides of the football,” the coach related. “We’ve only started him two weeks ago on defense, and he’s just been electrifying.

A short kickoff to open the game put St. Pauls on their own 42 yard line, but it took them just two additional plays to register the game’s first score, 7-0, following a point-after kick.

The Bears answered back with a nine play 74-yard drive culminating with a seven-yard run by quarterback Keveon Rodgers; but they missed the extra point and trailed 7-6.

After stopping the Bulldogs on downs, Hertford County went on another long clock-eating drive, this one for 80 yards in 11 plays, topped off by Outlaw’s first rushing score of the night, giving the Bears their first lead, 12-7.

It looked like they’d get more right away when Cofield pounced on a loose ball during St. Pauls’ next drive. But the Bears ended up having to punt and the ‘Dogs managed to scoop up a shank of a kick and raced it 43 yards to re-take the lead 15-12 thanks to a two-point conversion.

The Bears were stopped again on their next drive and St. Pauls ran a double-reverse on the second play of their drive, resulting in a passing touchdown. The PAT kick put Hertford County in a 10-point hole, 22-12.

Again, the Bears’ offense sputtered and stalled. Failing on fourth down, the Bulldogs took over at the Hertford County 24, but the Bears were bailed out when St. Pauls was stopped on a fourth-down attempt.

This time the home team got back to a controlled methodical march downfield and in 11 plays went 76 yards for a score that pulled them within two points with a minute-14 remaining in the first half, 22-20.

The Bears got one last shot before the mid-break, but a possible interception was wiped out by a penalty, and they went to the locker room trailing by just the deuce.

Hertford County got the ball to begin the second half and after picking up a quick first down at midfield, Rodgers was sacked back to the 44-yard line. But he came out of the huddle, called his own number, and scrambled 42 yards to the two-yard line. Outlaw did the rest, plunging over for a score and giving the Bears a 28-22 lead with the two-point conversion.

A great kickoff return set up St. Pauls at midfield. They needed just three plays to tie the score 28-28 before a point-after kick gave them a one-point lead.

Having completed just seven passes on 16 throws up until then thanks to the Bulldogs’ defense, Rodgers found his stride on the ensuing possession, completing three of his next four to the St. Pauls 35. Gatling then called for a toss-sweep to Outlaw from the sidelines, and the shifty runner dodged defenders on his way to the end zone. Rodgers bulled his way in for a two-point conversion and Hertford County was back in front, 36-29.

On the next drive, St. Pauls was stopped and forced to punt to the Bears’ 20 yard line. Hertford County chose to eat up some clock with a 12-play drive, but were stopped on the St. Pauls 40 on fourth down and punted to their own 20.

The ‘Dogs drove 80 yards, capping the seven-play drive with a 27 yard pass play. They opted to kick rather than go for two and that left the game tied at 36, setting up the dramatic finish.

St. Pauls had two more possessions. While the final one climaxed the finish, the first one ended in a stop on downs, helped by a sack courtesy of the Bears’ Zhaetwan Wells.

Thanks to Outlaw’s game-clinching run, the night now brought plenty of warmth to the chilly Hertford County crowd, and they roared as if they were on fire the rest of the way up to the final whistle.

“Give credit to them (St. Pauls), I mean, they did an excellent job blocking up front,” Gatling pointed out. “They did a lot of trap blocking, but they weren’t running the trap.”

In addition to Outlaw’s near-record night, Rodgers was 11-for-25 for 107 yards to six different pass-catchers. Jayden Robinson and Jar’Marcus White had 34 and 35 yards, respectively, receiving.

The win sends the Bears (9-2) to Duplin County for their second-round match-up next week, where Friday night (Nov. 10) they’ll face-off against perennial powerhouse Wallace-Rose Hill.

“We’ve got to improve our defensive front,” Gatling emphasized. “But, we’ll be ready.”