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STANHOPE — That second-round playoff hex? It quickly vanished into the cold November air Friday night inside Firebirds Stadium.
With Eastern Alamance providing the opposition in the second round of the North Carolina High School Athletic Association 3-A playoffs, the expectation surfaced for a back-and-forth affair between a pair of teams with double-digit win seasons to their credit.
Instead, the Firebirds simply ran the clock continuously on another opponent this season.
Behind an offensive line that paved the way for 434 yards rushing, junior Zonovan Knight ran for 231 yards and a touchdown as Southern Nash pounded its way into a Thanksgiving week showdown at Havelock with a decisive 62-20 victory.
Southern Nash, the No. 3 seed from the East Region and champions of the Big East Conference, improved to 12-1. Eastern Alamance, the No. 6 East seed and representatives of the Mid-State conference, closed its season with a 10-3 mark. The Eagles eliminated Southern Nash in the second round during the 2015 season.
Now, the much-anticipated showdown with Havelock awaits after the Rams dispatched Fayetteville E.E. Smith by a 56-7 margin Friday. It’s the second straight opponent Havelock has eliminated by that scoreline, although the Firebirds will enter next week having scored 198 points in their last three games.
Knight’s backfield mate, senior Kendrick Bell, wasn’t too shabby in his own right. He served as the closer on five Southern Nash drives, supplying a quintet of touchdowns on his way to 20 carries for 124 yards.
“We’ve had a goal all year, and we don’t talk a ton about it,” Southern Nash head coach Brian Foster said. “Our goal is not to win a conference championship. It’s going to be a tough game next week. And one really good team is not going to be playing after next week. You hate you have to play them in the third round, but we’ll do the best we can. I’m sure they’ll do the best they can, and we’ll see what happens.”
Eastern Alamance entered play with just a pair of losses, a 49-48 double-overtime loss to Northern Guilford and a 31-14 setback to East No. 1 seed and archrival Western Alamance. But combined with the speed and brute force of Southern Nash’s double-wing offense, ball security issues and the inability to mount sustained drives against the Firebirds’ first-team defense, the Eagles were quickly left overwhelmed.
Led by quarterback Hayden Mann, a James Madison commit, Eastern Alamance, fumbling twice, took the opening possession down to the nine-yard line. But on third down, Mann fumbled on his way to a loss of 13 yards, and Jackson Poteat’s 39-yard field goal sailed wide left.
Knight set the tone for the night on Southern Nash’s first possession. He took a jet sweep 69 yards down to the Eastern Alamance 8-yard line, and Bell slammed in from seven yards to finish the drive. Junior Carlos Garcia’s PAT made it 7-0 Firebirds.
“They told me to run the jet, and they just say follow your blockers,” Knight said. “And that’s what I do.”
Eastern Alamance’s issues with fumbling carried over into its second series. Senior defensive end Hunter Perry pounced on the loose ball at the 20-yard line, allowing Knight to dart 19 yards down to the 1-yard line. Bell jammed it in from the one, making it 14-0 Firebirds after the Garcia PAT.
Dialed into the Eastern Alamance up-tempo offense, Southern Nash quickly punched the Eagles off the field in three plays. Taking possession from midfield, Knight darted 30 more yards to open the drive, and senior fullback Kelvin Whitaker finished it off from the 1-yard line. With 92 seconds left in the opening quarter, Southern Nash was out in front with a commanding 21-0 lead.
“I told the guys after we played Wake Forest that that was IT,” Foster said of the defending 4-AA champions talent level. “And they believed it. Part of being good in anything is believing in it, and our guys believe in what we do. They believe in our offense, they believe in our defense, and it shows. A lot of people, when its first and 30 or first and 25, they’re going to throw the ball four times or three times. That ain’t what we do.”
The Firebirds had a brief hiccup on special teams in the second quarter. Dropping back for its only punt, Southern Nash had the punt blocked by Eastern Alamance linebacker Cole Forshee. It was picked up by Anthony Elam Jr., who ran it back to the 2-yard line. That set up a 2-yard burst from Tre Boseman, who was responsible for all three Eastern Alamance TDs. The PAT missed, making it 21-6.
Trying to steal a possession, the Eagles attempted an onside kick, but it was recovered by Southern Nash. Bell capped off the short-field drive with his third TD, a 2-yard run, to make it 27-6 Firebirds.
Any remaining life the Eagles had was quickly sucked out on the next series. Eastern Alamance drove inside the 10-yard line with Amier Alston, but Perry tackled Alston and forced the ball free. Sophomore outside linebacker Quinton Cooley picked it up and ran 94 yards the other way for a touchdown. After Knight added the 2-point conversion, Southern Nash led 35-6.
Boseman’s 1-yard run left the Firebirds with a 35-12 halftime lead.
Southern Nash scored on its first three possessions of the second half, using a 6-yard sprint from Knight, a 6-yard surge by Bell and another 9-yard run from Bell.
Bell’s 9-yard run, his fifth TD, triggered the running clock and sent the Firebirds into the fourth quarter with a 56-12 edge.
Southern’s final touchdown in the fourth quarter was set up by an interception off a tip from senior Demichael Knowles. Sophomore Isaiah Walker-Warren made a pair of cuts and darted into the end zone, making it 62-12 with 10:08 to play.
Boseman tacked on a 72-yard run with 7:06 left against the Southern Nash reserves. Mann hit Colby May on the two-point conversion to cap the scoring.
Mann, a mobile passer who entered play with 34 total touchdowns, was held in check, going 8-for-19 for 107 yards and an interception as the Firebirds put together a complete game to reach the third round for the first time since 2009.
“It was really talked about,” Knight assured of the second-round gridlock. “Coach Foster wanted us to prove everybody wrong saying we couldnt get out of the first round and everything.”