Homecoming at Roanoke Rapids was officially eight days earlier, but D.J. Jones was more than happy to take a one-week rain check.
Jones, who starred two years ago for the Jackets as a sophomore but has since transferred to Bunn, rushed for 163 yards and two touchdowns in his return Friday as the Wildcats earned an important Northern Carolina 2A Conference football decision, 28-17, handing Roanoke Rapids its first loss of the season.
Trailing by three points at halftime, Bunn clawed back with 14 unanswered markers in the second half to outlast the Jackets in front of an overflow audience at Roanoke Rapids’ historic Hoyle Field.
The Wildcats, who won last year’s NCC crown en route to a runner-up finish at the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2AA state championship, are now 7-1 overall and 2-0 in the NCC. First place in the league will be at stake this coming Friday when Bunn hosts South Granville.
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Roanoke Rapids, which had opened the campaign with seven straight victories, fell to 7-1 and 1-1.
“This was a big one,” said Bunn veteran coach David Howle. “We felt like the top four in our conference would be between us, Roanoke Rapids, Franklinton and South Granville. We got the win (Friday), but it wasn’t easy. Roanoke Rapids has a heck of a football team.”
Jones, who came to Bunn last year but only played basketball, helped lead the Wildcats’ comeback as he eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the seventh time in eight outings. He saw plenty of familiar faces on the other sideline and in the stands as part of his first trip back to Hoyle Field, but tried not to let those intangibles serve as a distraction.
“I just focused on playing,” Jones said. “I know about one-half of the guys (on RR’s roster), and (Jackets’ wide receiver) Marcus Allen is my best friend. Before the game, I told him that for 48 minutes we had to do what we needed to do. I have a lot of respect for him.”
Roanoke Rapids took a 17-14 lead into the break, thanks in part to a series of beneficial special teams plays. The Jackets foiled a Bunn fake punt attempt and recovered a pair of onside pooch kicks before Chase Johnson nailed a 34-yard field goal just 78 ticks in front of halftime.
But Bunn opened the third frame with a five-play, 54-yard drive that was capped by a 4-yard TD keeper from senior Quenten Wright. After a quick Jackets’ four-and-out, the Wildcats traveled 90 yards for an insurance score, with Jones handling the ball six times, including a 19-yard touchdown burst off the right side that increased Bunn’s advantage to 28-17 with 2:08 left in the third stanza.
Roanoke Rapids didn’t score in the second half.
“We just killed ourselves in the first half,” said Bunn lineman Jonathan Thomason. “We had a lot of penalties and stuff. The first thing we did was make an adjustment (on the pooch onside kicks) so that wouldn’t happen again. After that, we just lined up and got after it. Our backs really ran hard and we did a better job (defensively).”
THREE TO KNOW
D.J. Jones, Bunn: Jones made the most of his return to Roanoke Rapids with a huge game as he once again carried the major portion of the lead for Bunn’s offense from his halfback position.
“We tried to talk to (Jones) this week about what it would be like coming back,” Howle said. “We knew it would be tough for him, but I think he handled it really well. He had a heck of a game.”
Da’raj Watson, Roanoke Rapids: Even with Jones now at Bunn, the Jackets have several standout running backs, including Watson, who contributed 115 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries.
Celik Curtis, Bunn: A junior defensive end, Curtis was noticeable the entire contest with 12 tackles and two quarterback sacks. Four of Curtis’ stops were for a loss, and his inspired second-half performance helped keep Roanoke Rapids off the scoreboard.
Already hampered by injuries to some key players, the Jackets lost starting quarterback Cameron Rogerson on the first snap of the game, and he did not return. Junior Jack Neville, who had seen limited crunch-time duty this season, stepped in and played with poise and confidence. He completed nine passes for 103 yards and led the Jackets on a pair of touchdown drives. Seven of Neville’s connections came to Marcus Allen, who also hauled in a two-point conversion pass.
“(Roanoke Rapids head coach Eric McDaniels) had me prepared, and our offensive line blocked great,” Neville said. “They gave me the opportunity to make some things happen, but it really wasn’t what I did – it was more about what they did. Marcus Allen made me look like an all star. He is a great player who runs the best routes on our team.”
OUT OF BOUNDS
This was Bunn’s first game since Howle announced that he would be retiring at the conclusion of the season after 25 years as the school’s head football coach. Howle told his players earlier in the week about his decision as part of an emotional team meeting.
“It hit us hard when Coach Howle told us – we weren’t expecting it,” Thomason said. “Knowing this is his last year and how he has stuck with us, we want to win for him. We want (Howle) to be able to go out with a bang.”