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Middle Creek advances in first round of state football playoffs with wild 23-17 victory over Knightdale

Football can sometimes be a game of lucky bounces, and for the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter, things seemed to be going Knightdale’s way.

Against all odds, the depleted Knights (6-6), who gimped to a fifth-place finish in the Northern conference after losing starting quarterback Dax Hardy and running back Lewis Richardson to season-ending injuries, led Middle Creek 17-10 with 4:18 remaining in the fourth quarter of Friday night’s first-round 4A state playoff game.

Their lead had been built on a bizarre carom of a touchdown reception, two perfect field goals from first-time kicker Brett Porier and two safeties — one thanks to a flawless punt from their starting running back Nickili Muhammad.

The game also has a way of evenly distributing those bounces, though.

After Middle Creek (8-4) tied the game on a late touchdown, the Knights missed their opportunity to respond when multiple players on their return team misplayed Hunter Holmes’ squib kickoff. The game eventually went to overtime, where the Mustangs came up with a stop and score to win 23-17, much to the relief of their home fans.

“They’re a good football team,” Middle Creek head coach Randy Ragland said of Knightdale. “It’s a tough playoff game and they were playing just like us, trying to survive and advance.”

Knightdale took an early 2-0 lead, when it forced a safety after downing Muhammad’s punt inside the one-yard line. With the alternating possession, the Knights drove deep into Middle Creek territory and pushed their lead to 5-0 on a 22-yard field goal by first-time kicker Brett Porier.

The Mustangs responded immediately.

Quarterback Sean Brown capped off a nearly five-minute drive by hitting wide receiver Jamoree Ellis with an 8-yard touchdown pass. The Mustangs took their first lead of the game at 7-5.

After Holmes chipped in a 22-yard field goal, the score at the half was 10-5, in favor of Middle Creek.

That score remained until early in the fourth quarter, and that’s when things got weird.

On fourth and goal from the 12-yard line, Knightdale quarterback Camron Spellman spotted an open Jerome Washington for a potential go-ahead touchdown. But the throw ricocheted off Washington’s hands and floated towards the back of the end zone. Luckily for the Knights, Evan Mccray was right there to haul in a miracle grab. After Porier tacked on the extra point, Knightdale led 12-10 with 10:23 remaining.

Middle Creek mishandled the ensuing kickoff, and once again found themselves backed up against their own goal line — and the Knights once again capitalized. Muhammad, now on defense, brought down Anthony Robinson for the safety. Back on offense, Knightdale was able to set up Porier for another successful field goal attempt, this one from 35 yards. The score was now 17-10 Knights with 4:18 remaining.

Down 17-10, Brown engineered several crucial first downs to get Middle Creek across midfield, to Knights 38-yard line. And on second and eight, Randy Ragland decided to get creative.

On the very next play, Brown lateraled right to wide receiver Sean Horton, who shocked everyone in the stadium by finding a wide-open Dylan Fabiszak downfield for a 38-yard touchdown. All of a sudden, the game was tied at 17 with 1:21 left on the clock.

“We hadn’t been clicking all night offensively, so we thought that was our best chance to score and catch them off guard,” Ragland said.

Horton said his coach had let him know the play was coming a few series before.

“(Ragland) said to be ready for it,” Horton said. “I went out there with the mentality that I need to do whatever it takes to make this play for my team.”

Though Knightdale coughed up the ensuing kickoff, Middle Creek was unable to take advantage of stellar field position, and the game entered overtime.

The Mustangs won the coin toss, and opted to let Knightdale start on offense. By North Carolina High School Athletic Association rules, each team would receive four downs to score from the 10-yard line.

Knightdale’s offense sputtered, and the possession changed hands after Middle Creek’s Darnell Jones intercepted Spellman on fourth down.

After two unsuccessful rushing attempts, Anthony Robinson found paydirt on a six-yard run to seal a playoff victory that neither team will soon forget.

Once the dust had settled, Knightdale head coach Anthony Timmons tried to put the loss in perspective for his players.

“Everything I talked about to my guys was about life lessons,” Timmons said. “You’re going to learn that life has ups and downs, and how you handle them and respond to them is going to determine your outcome. All you can do it give it your all, and that’s what these guys did.”

Middle Creek will head to Fayetteville for a second-round matchup with Pine Forest next week. Ragland said he expects his team will be hungry after Friday night’s close call.

“I think they’re disappointed a little in the way they played tonight,” Ragland said. “I think they’re going to come in focused next week, and being out of school is probably going to help us to focus on football a little more.”

Gray’s Creek 6 Northern Durham 31

Northern Durham’s breakout season continued Friday night, as the Knights notched their first playoff win since 2015 — a 31-6 rout of Hope Mills’ Gray’s Creek Bears at Durham County Stadium.

The Knights jumped on top early, building a 13-0 lead with 6:06 remaining in the first quarter, thanks to a pick-six and a 35-yard touchdown pass from Brycen Jackson to LaDerrick Neville.

Jackson finished the game with three touchdown passes, raising his season total to 27 on the year.

Northern will look to keep its season alive, as the Knights host crosstown rival Hillside with a spot in the third round on the line.

Clayton 7 Hillside 16

Hillside continued their winning ways in the first round of the state playoffs, topping the Clayton Comets at home 16-7.

It was the Hornets fifth win in their last six games. Their lone loss? A 20-14 defeat at the hands of their opponent in next week’s second round: Northern Durham.

The Hornets got a big boost from Trajen Womack, who made his presence felt on defense and special teams. Womack found the end zone twice Friday night — on a punt return and fumble recovery.

Scotland County 26 Jordan 25

The Jordan Falcons lost a heartbreaker Friday night, dropping their first-round matchup with Scotland County by a score of 26-25.

Trailing by seven and driving in the game’s final minutes, the Falcons were able to close the gap to 26-25 on a touchdown pass from Ben Miller to Joaquin Davis.

However, instead of prolonging the game, the Falcons decided to go for the win, and lined up for a two-point conversion attempt.

Miller’s pass attempt was swatted away in the end zone, and with it, the Falcons playoff run came to an early exit.

Jordan, the Triangle 6 regular season co-conference champions, ends its 2018 campaign with a 5-7 overall record.