BEULAVILLE – Fighting what many thought was a hopeless battle Friday night in the first round of the 2-AA NCHSAA state playoffs in Beulaville against the East Duplin Panthers, the underdog No. 13 seed SouthWest Edgecombe Cougars showed what being battled tested early on in the season can do for a team.
They had struggled offensively for the majority of over two quarters and the defense couldn't find a way to stop the Panthers. But in the fourth quarter the Cougars responded and showed what happens when a team believes in themselves. They pulled off a dramatic comeback by scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter to defeat East Duplin 30-26 and advance to the second round of the playoffs.
"We stopped them when we needed to and made the big plays," Cougars head coach Raymond Cobb said. "We finally figured out some things and fought back to get the win. My guys never gave up and that is what we have been about all season – not giving up."
Late in the fourth quarter, East Duplin was driving inside of Cougar territory with less then three minutes remaining in the game forcing SouthWest to make a crucial defensive stop. Facing a fourth and three from the SouthWest 25-yard line, East Duplin went to their work horse Dijon Poole, but the Cougars defense wasn't having none of it and stopped Poole one yard short of the first down which forced East Duplin to turn the ball over on downs. Poole had been a dominating factor the entire game until that play as he racked up 197 yards on the ground on 26 carries. He had also scored twice.
Cobb knew his team was facing a tough task trailing 26-22 with 2:46 left in the game. They needed to drive the ball down the field 77 yards to pull off the dramatic comeback with just two timeouts remaining. Early on in the fourth quarter Cobb had turned to his team and told them they needed to believe.
SouthWest began the ensuing series from the 23-yard line and were playing with confidence, something they had lacked early on in the contest. They put an 11 play drive together that was all on the ground.
Senior running back Gerald Hinton told his teammates before the final series, that they needed to just keep fighting, because he knew they could pull off the unthinkable.
"I told the guys to do what we do," Hinton said with excitement after the game. "I didn't want this to be our last game. I wanted us to fight back and show what we were all about."
On the first play of the series, quarterback Quay Wooten had his number called out of the shotgun and darted out to the right side of the Cougars offensive line and turned the corner and gained 21 yards. Hinton then had the game put on his shoulders to carry the load. He carried the pigskin eight times in the drive, with six consecutive carries, behind his offensive line who was stellar in the fourth quarter. Hinton exploded for runs of 16, 12, 12, 5, and 3 to get the Cougars inside the five yard line.
Facing a fourth and two from the 5-yard line, Hinton again answered for his team and gained three yards to give the Cougars a first and goal from the 2-yard line with 14 second left and Wooten rushed under center and spiked the ball to stop the clock. East Duplin then called a timeout, which gave the Cougars time to set up a play that was their bread and butter during that drive.
Coming out of the timeout, East Duplin packed their defense in as tight as they could with eight players on the line of scrimmage and had their linebackers creeping in behind the defensive line. Hinton took the hand off from Wooten and bounced the ball to the right side and dove towards the end zone and scored. SouthWest went for the two-point conversion and converted it when Wooten connected with Anthony Coley to give SouthWest the dramatic comeback 30-26 victory. The East Duplin sideline was stunned as they stood and watched as the Cougars celebrated.
"I told myself it finally paid off with all the fighting we had done all year," Hinton said. "We worked so hard to get to that point and we didn't want to let anyone down. It feels good to win a big game like this. It was well worth it."
Cobb was very excited for the teams win after the game and was very pleased with his offenses performance. He said that his offensive line and running backs stepped up and executed on the last drive.
Hinton finished the game with 108 yards rushing and 48 yards receiving. He also had 68 yards on kickoff returns.
"What can you say about Gerald – boy he had a heck of a performance," Cobb said. "I walked over to him after the game and told him Happy Birthday."
Cobb said coming into the game, that Wooten was going to have to be a key factor if the Cougars were going to be successful. Wooten had to be on top of his passing game and would have to connect with his receivers.
Wooten answered Cobb and had one of the best games of his career under center. Wooten threw for 114 yards and a TD. His TD throw came in the second quarter which was the Cougars first score of the game. Wooten connected with Coley for a 46-yard TD pass. Wooten finished the game 4 for 10 passing, but only one of his throws was uncatchable. Five of his passes hit his receivers in the hands but were dropped.
"I knew as long as our line blocked well I knew we had a chance," Wooten said. "We had to capitalize in tough situations and we did. I had to keep my head on straight and hope my receivers would catch the ball. Gerald made a good catch on the throw I made to him."
The throw Wooten was talking about came in the fourth quarter, when he connected with Hinton for 39 yards. Hinton jumped above the defender and brought the ball down at the 8-yard line and Wooten punched it in from 1-yard out two plays later which cut the East Duplin lead to 26-22
Cobb was impressed with the way his QB handled the pressure and was pleased with his performance. Cobb said this was one of Wooten's best games of his career.
SouthWest out gained the Panthers 353 to 347 on offense.
The task doesn't get easier for the Cougars, because they will travel to Bunn Friday night to play the No. 5 seeded Bunn Wildcats.