For the third time in head coach Kevin Jackson’s tenure and first since back-to-back appearances in his first two seasons in 2013 and 2014, he has led East Marion (8-5) to the South State Championship.
In a rematch at Lumberton Friday night, the Eagles washed away the sour taste of a 34-6 Sept. 28 defeat by jumping out to an 18-0 first-quarter lead and their defense making big play after big play for a 26-14 victory over the Panthers (11-2).
“It’s great to see them start to believe in themselves and start to play like they had the ability to play all year. I told them at half time when we lost this game the first time in the regular season, we all said we wanted another shot at them,” Jackson said. “We did (get another shot), and they came through.”
The Eagles will now set their sights on Nanih Waiya (13-1) and make the 166-mile trek to Louisville with a trip to the 1A state title game on the line. Jackson, who had just received an ice bath from his players in 40-degree weather after defeating Lumberton, said the Eagles are proud to be deserving of the opportunity.
“It feels good. Hats off to our kids,” he said. “They believed in themselves. They’ve fought hard. They’ve worked hard, and it’s paying off.”
Thanks to a creative play call by offensive coordinator Maurice Thornton Friday night against Lumberton, the Eagles offense needed just 40 seconds to put the first points on the board. The Eagles had a read-option look in the backfield, with quarterback Devin Daniels keeping the ball. While he tucked the ball way and forced the Lumberton defense to key on the run, Daniels ran horizontally rather than attacking the line of scrimmage before untucking the ball and launching a deep ball to a wide-open Flenard McLin for a 68-yard touchdown and a 6-0 lead.
The Eagles defense then forced Lumberton to throw on third-and-long, and Wanya Cook chased down Panthers quarterback Jared Tribbet for a sack to force a punt. But the snap on the punt rolled past Lumberton’s punter, and the Eagles brought him down at the Lumberton 5. Two plays later, Latrel Waller powered his way into the end zone to put the Eagles up 12-0.
Then the Eagles forced another quick punt, and Daniels connected with Jacob Johnson for a nice gain before running for 28 yards on three runs to get East Marion in the red zone. Cook then picked up great perimeter blocking on an outsize zone, turned the corner and found pay dirt from 14 yards out to make it 18-0 with 3:39 still on the clock in the first quarter.
“It was great to get off to a fast start and put them behind a bit to see how they respond,” Jackson said. “They haven’t been behind much throughout the season. It was great to get out in front and put pressure on them. We forced them to have to throw the ball a little bit more.”
The Panthers offense finally found some traction midway through the second quarter as Tribbet connected with Daylan Young for a 20-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 18-7.
Then the Eagles offense put their defense in some bad spots, but it responded. Daniels lost a fumble that set up the Panthers at the East Marion 13, but the defense didn’t allow a yard and Lumberton missed a field goal. Then Daniels was intercepted on an errant throw, but East Marion cornerback Keithshon Johnson forced a fumble that Lawrence Lambert recovered two plays later to keep Lumberton from eating into the lead before halftime.
Lumberton nearly gifted East Marion some easy points as the Panthers muffed the kickoff to start the second half, which gave the Eagles the ball at the Lumberton 28. However, East Marion only picked up one yard in four plays to give it right back.
Taking advantage of the missed opportunity, the Panthers marched down the field, and Davion Edwards broke free of several East Marion defenders on his way to a 10-yard touchdown to make it 18-14 with 4:36 left in the third quarter.
East Marion was able to pick up a few first downs on the ensuing possession and ate up the remainder of the third quarter but was forced to punt it back to Lumberton as the Eagles were clinging to a four-point lead. East Marion’s defense rose to the occasion, though, on a 4th-and-3 at the Eagles 40, getting a stuff to get the ball back.
While the Eagles once again were unable to score on the ensuing drive, they milked nearly five minutes off the clock before being forced to punt. What a punt it was, though, as Jaquarious Jones booted it 40 yards and pinned the Panthers at their own 5 with just over three minutes left in the game.
Lumberton was able to pick up two first downs, but the Eagles forced the Panthers into a 4th-and-10 at the Lumberton 35 with two minutes remaining. Tribbet found K’Nylan Willis over the middle at the sticks, but Lambert and Ladarrius Watts teamed up to bring him down short of the first down.
The Eagles got the ball back with 1:44 left and seemingly needed just one first down to ice the game, with Lumberton only having two timeouts. East Marion picked up a first down on its first play as Cook rambled for a gain of 11 and kneeled two straight plays as the Panthers used their timeouts. On third down, though, the Eagles handed it to Cook, who despite picking up 16 yards, ran out of bounds instead of running out the clock and was two yards shy of a first down. With the clock stopped, the Eagles were forced to try to win the game by picking up another first on 4th-and-2, but Cook was stopped short, which gave the ball back to Lumberton with 40 seconds left.
With how stingy East Marion had been all game on defense and the Panthers needing 81 yards to score without a timeout, it seemed Lumberton would need a miracle to have a chance. They got it, though, as Tribbet launched a bomb to Young on the first play for 56 yards down to the East Marion 25. After a spike to stop the clock, however, Waller jumped a pass, intercepted it and returned it 85 yards for a touchdown the other way to seal the game. Cook would run in the two-point conversion to end it 26-14.
“I told them earlier in the week that the defense is going to have to win the game. They believed that they could, and that’s what they went out and did tonight,” Jackson said.
Pictured Above: The East Marion defense runs off the field in celebration after stopping Lumberton short of a first down with less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter Friday night. | Photo by Joshua Campbell