East Surry came up short in its quest for a fourth West Regional Championship on Friday.
A 45-13 loss to the top-ranked Shelby Golden Lions ended the Cardinals’ season at 13-1. East Surry finishes as the 2A West Regional Runner-up in its first season after being promoted from the 1A division.
Cardinal coach Trent Lowman called the 2021-22 season was a wild ride and a story he will never forget.
“We were 13-0 until we ran into the team that’s very likely going to win the state championship,” Lowman said. “We knew as coaches that the third round of these 2A playoffs this year was going to be where you play that Tarboro-caliber team. We played Monroe and nobody gave us a chance. We won that one then played Maiden, who was MaxPreps’ No. 1 team, and we managed to win that one too. Then we ran into Shelby who is the real No. 1 and they’re a different animal. Always have been.”
Shelby (14-1) advances to the N.C. High School Athletic Association Championship for the seventh time in nine years. The Golden Lions look to win their 18th State Title in school history.
Shelby was one of the favorites, if not the undisputed favorite, to come out of the 2A West after falling short of the title game in the subdivided 2A playoffs this past spring. Despite winning back-to-back-to-back regional championships in the subdivided 1AA playoffs, East Surry was not in that same conversation at the start of the 2021-22 season.
“We are a young team,” Lowman said. “You know, our three-year starter stud Benji Gosnell moves away right before the season starts and all the talk was about how ‘East Surry’s going to find out what real football is all about in 2A.’ These guys believed they could line up and play with anybody, and that’s exactly what they did.
“East Surry is 22-3 in the year 2021 and the losses were to Tarboro, Reidsville and Shelby, and dadgumit I’ll take that.”
The Cardinals have a record of 48-7 over the past four seasons. In that time, East Surry only has one loss to teams in its division (when the game was played) that didn’t go on to win a state championship that season.
“In four years, next week’s state final is the only game we haven’t played,” Lowman said. “Not many people can say that. So yeah, I’m sad that these guys felt defeat tonight, but it’s tears of joy more than anything for what they’ve done. Watching these guys grow for four years and for them to be one game shy of playing every possible game of their career is pretty amazing.
“These seniors are the group that I started with here,” Lowman continued. “Sam (Whitt) in particular was on varsity all four years, and Benji would’ve been the other one. A lot of guys like Trey Armstrong have been in all the state championships with us.”
A fourth state championship appearance for East Surry wasn’t outside the realm of possibility after the first 12 minutes of play. Despite red zone appearances by both teams, the score sat at 0-0 entering the second quarter.
The Cardinal offense was introduced to Malaki Hamrick, Shelby’s four-star edge rusher committed to UNC-Chapel Hill, on the opening drive. Hamrick picked up a sack to force an East Surry punt.
A combination of passing and rushing moved the Golden Lions in the red zone in less than three minutes. Quarterback Daylin Lee led the no-huddle offense into Cardinal territory without throwing an incompletion, but a hold on the Lions moved Shelby back 14 yards. Lee completed a pass for a big gain on first down, but threw an incomplete pass on second down. East’s Kyle Zinn’s picked up a tackle for a loss to force fourth-and-4, and another Cardinal stop turned the ball over on downs.
Armstrong got East Surry’s offense going with a 43-yard run. When faced with a fourth down, QB Folger Boaz found Armstrong for an 18-yard gain. The Cards got as far as the Golden Lion 18-yard line, but decided to attempt a field goal on fourth-and-long. Stephen Brantley attempted the 27-yarder and the kick sailed wide left.
Shelby found itself in a third-and-long situation on its next drive. On their own 34-yard line, Lee connected with Demetrius Thompson for a 20-yard gain. Lee finished 17-of-23 passing for 182 yards, and Thompson was his favorite target with six receptions for 62 yards.
After the big first down throw, Shelby moved the chains three times over the next three plays to reach the Cardinal 3-yard line at the end of the first quarter. Drew Hollifield plugged the 3-yard run in to make it 7-0 at the start of the second quarter.
East Surry started on its 26-yard line after a holding penalty on the kickoff return. A fumble was forced by Shelby and scooped and scored by Jaden Pierce as the nightmare second quarter was just starting for East.
The Cardinals punted after a three-and-out, then the Lions converted twice on third down to score another touchdown and the accompanying 2-point conversion. Another three-and-out saw East punt again, but the kick was tipped and started Shelby on the Cardinal 35.
A short run from Bricen Kee set Lee up for a 31-yard touchdown pass to Luke Williams with 5:28 left in the half. Shelby led 29-0.
The next three Cardinal drives ended with two interceptions and a punt. East only recorded two first downs in the second quarter. Shelby added another touchdown and a field goal to go up 39-0 at the half.
“As coaches, we felt like we were either going to win this close, or a few bad things were going to happen and it could get ugly,” Lowman said. “When you play a team like this those are kind of the only two options. First quarter we did good things: we stopped them, we moved the ball and it’s 0-0 end of the quarter. Momentum started to roll in the second and we never stopped it. When you play a team of this caliber, you better stop it or it’s going to roll and it did until halftime.”
East Surry attempted an onside kick to begin the second half, but failed to recover it. Shelby used the short field to score its final touchdown at the 9:20 mark. A failed PAT left the score at 45-0.
Down, but not out, East Surry’s offense took the field. The Cardinals turned the ball over on downs in Shelby territory, but got it back when Layton Allen picked off Hollifield. The Cardinals marched down Pearly Allen Field and got on the board as time expired in the third quarter. It was Brantley who brought in an 18-yard pass from Boaz. The score was 45-6 after a failed PAT.
The Cardinals continued to fight and forced a Golden Lion punt after a Brett Clayton sack on fourth down. East took the ball 66 yards and scored on a 35-yard run by Anderson Badgett. Brantley’s PAT rounded out the final score of 45-13.
East Surry finished with 323 total yards to Shelby’s 393.
Lee threw for all of Shelby’s 182 passing yards before exiting the game after the second half’s opening drive. The Lions rushed 35 times for 207 yards, led by Bricen Kee’s 103 yards. All six of the Golden Lions’ touchdowns were scored by different players.
Boaz completed 15-of-26 passes for 182 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Allen led the Cards with nine catches for 105 yards, following by Armstrong and Colby Johnson with two receptions each for a combined 48 yards, Luke Brown had one catch for 11 yards and Brantley’s only catch was the 18-yard touchdown reception.
Badgett rushed six times for 55 yards and a touchdown. Armstrong added eight carries for 53 yards, Clayton had three carries for 22 yards, Boaz rushed six times for 5 yards, Johnson rushed twice for 4 yards and Zinn carried once for 4 yards.
East Surry finishes with at least 13 wins for the fifth time in school history. The Cardinals went undefeated during the regular season for the third-consecutive year and won the Foothills 2A Conference Championship. The Cardinals had a plus/minus of +27.71 points and recorded three shutouts.
“What these guys did this year was incredible,” Lowman said. “Whether it was starting a freshman at linebacker, having Luke Brown – who never played football until this year – start at wide receiver all year, or Luke Bowman having never played until last year and then he makes huge plays in the playoffs.
“I’m proud of all these young men. Even though this might not have been a storybook ending, it was a cool story that was really fun to be a part of.”
East Surry – 0, 0, 6, 7 = 13
Maiden – 0, 39, 6, 0 = 45
11:56 SHS 7-0 – Drew Hollifield 3-yard rush TD, Jack Berkowitz PAT
11:35 SHS 14-0 – Jaden Pierce fumble recovery returned 10 yards for a TD, Jack Berkowitz PAT
6:50 SHS 22-0 – Marquis Adams 6-yard rush TD, Marquis Adams 2-point conversion rush
4:45 SHS 29-0 – Daylin Lee pass to Luke Williams 31-yard TD reception, Jack Berkowitz PAT
3:44 SHS 36-0 – Bricen Kee 49-yard rush TD, Jack Berkowitz PAT
0:00 SHS 39-0 – Jack Berkowitz 27-yard field goal
9:20 SHS 45-0 – Tristan Tate 13-yard rush TD, PAT no good
0:00 ESHS 45-6 – Folger Boaz pass to Stephen Brantley 18-yard TD reception, PAT no good
7:25 ESHS 45-13 – Anderson Badgett 35-yard rush TD, Stephen Brantley PAT
Reach Cory on Twitter @MaNewsSports