Falcons survive 28-27, fly to first conference title in emotion-filled game

Senior Jemere Artis (No. 23) rushed for 187 yards to help South Central defeat DH Conley -- --and win a conference championship -- Thursday night. (252Buzz photo by Bill Hudson)

By Mike Grizzard

South Central senior Jeremy Lewis stood in the center of D.H. Conley’s football field Thursday night, waving a huge Falcon flag and soaking in the thrill of his school’s first-ever conference championship. Several yards away, emotions of an intense night filled with big plays and big mistakes continued to percolate as players from both teams and students skirmished until school officials and police stepped in.

For the second year in a row, the Eastern Carolina 3-A/4-A title boiled down to the regular-season finale between county rivals with the visitor celebrating on its rival’s home field. The Falcons prevailed 28-27 to stay unbeaten, erasing an early 14-point deficit then surviving by blocking a Conley extra point and stopping the Vikings a yard short of a first down at the 21 with 1:00 to play.

“It’s amazing to be conference champs,” said Lewis, a 6-4, 228-pound receiver who capped off a run of 28 consecutive points with a 45-yard touchdown catch. “We’ve been working since August 1 for this moment. It can’t get no better than that.”

South Central (10-0, 6-0 ECC) and Conley (7-3, 5-1) entered last year’s showdown with unbeaten conference records. The Falcons bolted to a 21-7 lead before now-ECU quarterback Holton Ahlers rallied the Vikings to a 50-43 halftime lead on the way to a 78-43 victory.

Lewis said he was determined not to let his final shot at a title get away.

“Going into the half I got the boys together in a huddle and told them we’ve been in this situation before and we lost it,” he said. “We were up two touchdowns. We just had to keep pounding, keep pounding.”

Conley’s fortunes turned quickly after an impressive start, scoring on its first two possessions for a 14-0 lead. The Vikings’ defense recorded six tackles for loss in the first half but surrendered eight plays of at least 10 yards and turned the ball over on three consecutive offensive snaps. Conley also were flagged for an uncharacteristic seven penalties for 83 yards in the first two quarters.

“We turned the ball over a little too much,” Conley head coach Nate Conner said. “That’s probably the name of the night. We lose by one point, but it’s not the extra point, it’s not the fourth down. We turned the ball over a lot. We didn’t get out of some bad situations, we had a lot of penalties early that kept drives going. That’s where the game was won or lost.”

South Central prevailed despite starting quarterback Justin Humphries sitting out with a left foot injury and backup Caleb Woodley missing the entire fourth quarter. Woodley turned in a solid performance, completing 7 of 12 passes for 116 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Junior Xavier Mechem directed the offense for the final quarter and attempted just one pass, which was nearly picked off. Seniors Jemere Artis and Nazir Monroe-Smith shouldered the burden and keyed a couple of late drives that didn’t result in points but drained precious minutes off the clock.

Artis finished with 187 yards rushing on 12 carries highlighted by a 72-yard run to set up a first-quarter score. Monroe-Smith had 63 yards on 18 carries and scored one touchdown.

“We’ve had a lot of adversity,” South Central head coach Andy Tew said. “ … I guess it speaks volumes of our defense, speaks volumes of that young man who stepped in there. We ended up having to win the game with our third-string quarterback, if you will.

“I can’t be more proud of these guys. We just show up every day and coach them, and they’re the ones out there on the field performing. I’m so proud of them and this group for what they’ve done for South Central over the years and this win tonight is the culmination with a lot more football to play.”

Conley looked to be well on the way to its second straight title after swing passes from Nick Hamilton to Nyck Brown on the first two possessions resulted in touchdowns covering 35 and 16 yards and a 14-0 lead.

The Vikings held South Central without a first down until the 1:19 mark of the first quarter, coming on a 32-yard pass from Woodley to Lewis that ignited the Falcons. Tarrell Hines scored two plays later on a jet sweep from 14 yards out, and Monroe-Smith ran in the two-point conversion.

A 72-yard dash by Artis set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Monroe-Smith, who also added another two-point conversion for a 16-14 lead.

An interception of a tipped pass by Markell Gibbs and an unsportsmanlike penalty on Conley set up the Falcons’ third touchdown, a pinpoint-perfect 16-yard fade from Woodley to Monroe-Smith on fourth-and-12.

The Vikings coughed up the ball on the first play of the next series, and South Central cashed it in four plays later on Woodley’s 45-yard strike to Lewis.

Conley regrouped at half and scored on its opening possession of the third quarter, pulling within 28-21 on a 12-yard pass from Hamilton to Zy Edwards. The Vikings’ defense then responded, forcing a Woodley fumbled that Connor Whitehurst scooped up and carried 32 yards to make it 28-27.

A penalty backed up the PAT attempt 5 yards, then the Falcons barreled through with Kendrick Britton blocking the kick.

“We lined up for the PAT and I said, ‘Let’s blow him back and Kendrick you get the block. We blew him back, and Kendrick got the block,” Lewis said.

Conley still had its chances, thanks to the defense coming up with a pair of fourth-down stops. Monroe-Smith ended one drive with an interception of a pass that slipped through the hand of teammate Cole Burgess.

The Vikings took over their final possession with 3:15 to go and drove from their 21 to the South Central 30 in 10 plays and a pass interference penalty. On fourth-and-10, Hamilton was pressured and scrambled to his left before being dropped one yard shy of the the first-down stick.

The Falcons needed two snaps to run out the clock and seal the title.

“It’s a game of inches, and it literally showed that tonight,” Conner said. “We didn’t make enough plays, and they did. That’s why they got the victory.”

Neither Conner nor Tew elaborated on the post-game confrontation.

“We let our emotions get the best of us, but I’m not going to speak to something else as far as that goes,” Conner said. “We’ve got to take care of D.H. Conley, and we’ve got to do a better job of that. I wasn’t good enough tonight. I didn’t put ourselves in a good enough position to prevent a lot of those things, and that all falls back on me as the head football coach.”

Tew said emotions are expected in a rivalry game with so much on the line.

“It’s a big-time game,” he said. “A lot of emotions went back and forth. It was a great football game. Emotions are going to fly.”

Mike Grizzard of Winterville has more than 30 years of experience as a writer for both print and digital publications in the areas of sports, business, news, faith and personal profiles. Contact Mike at 252-916-4206.