Friday night’s penultimate matchup of the regular season between Starmount and Wilkes Central was a game of opportunity for both teams on the Eagles’ senior night in Moravian Falls.
With the North Carolina High School Athletic Association football playoffs fast approaching, both squads needed the win to improve their playoff hopes.
It was the Eagles who would take advantage of their opportunities the most, emerging victorious 21-13 after the defense held the Rams out of the end zone on a late goal line stand in the final minute.
After the game, Wilkes Central Head Coach Ron Turner heaped praise on his playmaking defense.
“The defense gave up some yards at times but bowed their back and I thought they played great. Starmount is a good offensive team,” said Turner.
After forcing a turnover on downs from the Rams first possession, JoRaye Morrison led the Eagles on the field for their first possession. He would literally carry the Eagles down the field, rushing for all 65 of the Eagles yards, including the 5-yard touchdown run to put the Eagles on the board, 7-0, following Bryan Francis’ extra point.
The Rams (5-5, 2-4 Mountain Valley Athletic Conference) responded on the next drive, with a little help from the Eagles. Facing a fourth-and-five from the Eagles 45-yard line, the Rams punted the ball only for the Eagles to be flagged for a 15-yard penalty.
With a fresh set of downs the Rams would capitalize when quarterback Trey Dezern found Eric Wiles for a 19-yard reception. The extra point was no good, cutting the Eagles lead to one.
The Eagles (6-4, 4-2) did not score again in the first half, with two interceptions plaguing the offense — one from quarterback Josh Pack and another in the red zone from Morrison off of a halfback pass play on fourth-and-goal.
Starmount’s offense had struggles of its own, losing two fumbles in Eagle territory to halt promising drives to keep the Central advantage at 7-6 at the halftime break.
The Eagles came out of the halftime break and methodically marched down the field against the Rams.
Central again looked to the ground attack, spearheaded by Pack and Morrison. Ten plays, 57 yards and 3:37 later, Morrison would run 3 yards into the end zone to push the Eagle lead to 13-6 after the extra point was no good.
The advantage was short lived as Starmount scored in less than a minute. A 31-yard run from Sterling Holbrook, along with a 15-yard penalty for a facemask against the Eagles, set Starmount up with first-and-goal. Holbrook would run it in from the eight-yard line to tie the game 13-13 after Jose Najera’s extra point.
The teams remained tied until late in the third quarter when Pack would break tackles and run for 58 yards to the end zone. Morrison scored on the two-point conversion to give the Eagles the 21-13 lead.
Starmount would throw an interception in the waning seconds of the third quarter only for Central to fumble the ball in the opening minute of the fourth quarter.
With 5:35 left in the game, the Eagles had a chance to increase their lead to two scores with a 31-yard field goal only for the kick to fall short.
The Rams took over at their own 20 trailing by a single score. The Rams passing attack had been limited to only six yards in the second half so the offense turned to running backs Holbrook and J. Max Swaim.
Their combined efforts, including five first down runs from Swaim, set the Rams up on the Eagle 14 with just over a minute remaining.
The Eagles defense faced a third-and-one from the 5 and hit Swaim in the backfield for a three-yard loss.
Starmount called a timeout to preserve the clock, setting up a fourth-and-four from the Eagle 5-yard line, with 40 seconds remaining. Dezern dropped back to pass and floated the ball towards Will Ray, only to be intercepted by Pack to seal the win for the Eagles.
“They played some defenses we hadn’t seen on film in the first half. It took us a while to make adjustments and we found some things that worked in the second half,” said Turner. “Our defensive staff came in with a good game plan and also made some adjustments at the half. Offensively and defensively, the adjustments we made at halftime ended up being the difference in the ballgame. “
After the game, Starmount Head Coach Sandy Grinton point to the missed opportunities, being a difference. The Rams will look to get back on track after two last-minute losses when it hosts MVAC co-leader Ashe County.
“We got it down there three or four times. We moved the ball well and we couldn’t capitalize and make plays when we needed too,” said Grinton. “They made more plays than we did. Our kids played hard, but we didn’t make enough plays.”
The Eagles still have an outside chance at earning a share of the MVAC title with a win at East Wilkes this Friday. They would also need both Ashe County and Elkin to lose on Friday, which would create a three-way share.