Leesville Road's defense surrendered a season-high 30 points Friday night, but the Pride also forced five turnovers and got two fourth-down stops late in the fourth quarter to escape Middle Creek 37-30 in their second-round NCHSAA 4-AA playoff showdown.
By Tim Candon
APEX -- Leesville Road's defense surrendered a season-high 30 points Friday night, but the Pride also forced five turnovers and got two fourth-down stops late in the fourth quarter to escape Middle Creek 37-30 in their second-round NCHSAA 4-AA playoff showdown.
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"They've got a tremendous offense," said Leesville coach Chad Smothers. "It was going to be whose defense could stop the other enough. Fortunately, we got them off the field enough and scored more points, and we're going to get out of here before they ask for it back."
Two of the Triangle's top teams traded offensive blows throughout the night. Middle Creek had 429 yards of total offense, while Leesville finished with 452.
But the Pride is moving on to face Garner next weekend thanks to the Herculean efforts of its defense. Braxton Berrios intercepted one pass and recovered a fumble, while sophomore JV call-up Elisiah Richardson had two interceptions. Defensive end Michael Richardson had two sacks, including one on the game's final play as Middle Creek quarterback David Salmon scrambled to buy time for a Hail Mary to the end zone.
The Pride ground out 343 rushing yards on a whopping 70 attempts. Kamir Bowen led the charge with 155 yards and two touchdowns, while Berrios went for 91 yards and two scores.
"I can't say enough about their effort," Smothers said. "That's a total buy-in when kids play that hard."
While the Pride's defense rose to the challenge late, their night started off anything but sound. Middle Creek needed all of 3 plays and 31 seconds to cover 69 yards to the end zone. Naylan Lopez (120 yards, two TDs) finished off the drive with an 11-yard TD run for an early 7-0 Mustangs lead.
But then Leesville (12-0) scored on three straight possessions and jumped out to a 21-10 lead. The Mustangs (11-2) cut the deficit to 21-16 thanks to Salmon's 5-yard TD pass to Davonne Johnson (100 rushing yards, 73 receiving yards, 2 TDs).
Salmon and Johnson hooked up again midway through the third quarter, this time on a 28-yard catch-and-run, to grab the lead back, 23-21.
Up 30-29, Middle Creek looked as if they were marching toward the end zone again, but Berrios stepped in front of a screen pass, and the Pride used that turnover to regain the lead. Kamir scored on a six-yard run, and Evan Parker hit Devin Williamson for the two-point conversion for a 37-30 lead with 8:22 to play. The scoring drive featured a gutsy conversion on fourth and 15. De'Rahjai Robinson hauled a pass that covered 15 yards and and a couple extra inches to keep the drive alive, and Kamir scored on the next play.
The Mustangs once again were poised to tie the game, but Williamson intercepted a Salmon pass at the goal line on fourth down.
On Middle Creek's next drive, Lopez was stopped inches shy of the first down near midfield. The Mustangs got the ball back one more time. Starting out at their own 15 with 90 seconds to play, they crossed midfield and were in position for a heave to the end zone. But the Pride smotheed Salmon in the backfield before he got a chance to let it fly as time expired.
"We tell our kids to play and fight until the game ends, and they did that tonight," said Middle Creek coach Mike Castellano. "We didn't execute like we expected to, but Leesville is a good football team. We are as well, but we made a couple mistakes, and they made a couple more plays."