OLIN — A long Friday night turned into an exciting Saturday morning between Wilkes Central and North Iredell in the season opener.
But when it was all said and done, the Eagles celebrated a 15-12 win over North Iredell at around 12:30 a.m. Saturday.
Originally scheduled to kick off at 7:30 p.m. Friday, the game was delayed nearly three hours due to lightning and rains, not starting until 10:15 p.m.
“I’d say that Saturday was a lot better than Friday. We scored and won on Saturday; Friday, we didn’t play too well in the second half,” said Wilkes Central Head Coach Ron Turner. “But I was pleased to come away with the win, especially with what our numbers are and how many kids we had to play both ways. We got tired but we found a way to win the ball game — that’s the best thing about it, the kids didn’t give up when they got behind and found a way to make a play to win it.
“You always worry about how you’re going to react first game,” Turner added about the delay. “Then you throw in a three-hour delay on that and you really worry about how they’re going to react but I thought our kids were ready to play.”
Trailing 12-7 after the Raiders took their first lead of the game with 1:15 to play thanks to a 19-yard pass from quarterback Joe Gaither to Hunter Bolden, Central decided to use a little trickery on the next drive.
After Josh Pack found Alex Nichols for a short gain to set up second-and-five from its own 30-yard line, the senior quarterback pitched to Cortlan Clark on a reverse who then found a wide-open Ethan Dobson near the Raiders’ 30.
From there, the senior dodged multiple North Iredell defenders for the go-ahead score with 42 seconds remaining on a play that covered 70 yards.
“It turned out to be a good play and I’ve got to give credit to my boy Ethan, he made the cut and took it to the house,” said Clark.
When asked if he realized how open he was on the play, Dobson felt confident that he had lost his defender before racing to the end zone.
“I saw him bite for it so I just ran the route, like we do in practice, and I just made the play,” said Dobson, who finished with two catches for 96 yards and the score.
The Raiders had one last chance after returning to the ball to its 43 but was unable to convert on its first three plays before Gaither scrambled for an 18-yard gain, setting up first-and-10 from the Eagle 39 with 13 seconds to play.
After Gaither found Fabian Summers for a 14-yard pickup, the Eagles defense stood tall and forced an incompletion as time expired.
Wilkes Central (1-0) jumped out to a 7-0 lead after one quarter courtesy of a 5-yard touchdown run from Pack. Bryan Francis then added the extra point.
After Ahmad Carlton intercepted a tipped pass on the Raiders’ next possession, the Eagles appeared to have taken a two-score lead when Pack found Nichols for a touchdown but it was negated by a Central holding penalty.
Defensively, the Eagles held the Raiders to just 33 first-half yards.
“Defense played great and in the first half, they absolutely stoned them; offensively, we were good in the first half, we just had two or three mistakes that prevented us from possibly being ahead 21-0 at halftime,” said Turner. “Because we made those mistakes, we let them stay in the game; then they made a few plays, and all of a sudden, we were behind.”
The Raiders (0-1) finally got on the board in the third quarter when Gaither hit Cody Nicholson on a screen pass and the senior took it 24 yards for the touchdown.
But a pair of costly mistakes prevented them from tying or taking the lead prior to the final minute of the game.
The first was a botched snap on the extra point attempt following their first score and then placekicker Spencer Morrison missed a 39-yard field goal attempt with 8:27 to play.
After a three-and-out from the Eagles following the missed field goal, the Raiders got all the way to the Central 34 before JoRaye Morrison, who scored the two-point conversion on Central’s second touchdown, picked off Gaither to end the drive.
“A lot of kids made big plays on defense and I’m proud of them that they continued to compete and found a way to win the game but we’ve got a lot of improvement to make,” said Turner.
One of those improvements will need to be their second-half production on offense. The Eagles, who will face a talented Alexander Central squad (fresh off a 28-19 win at Hibriten) on Friday, had just one first down in the second half.
Notes: The Raiders, who were led by 142 yards on 10-of-23 passing from Gaither, will travel to Forbush on Friday night. Morrison and Pack led Central’s rushing attack with 69 and 65 yards, respectively. Four of the last five meetings between the Eagles and Raiders have been determined by a touchdown or less. The lone exception was Central’s 21-0 win in 2017.