ELKTON — Central’s football team spent half of the regular season chasing East Rockingham in the playoff race. On Friday night, the Falcons spent a frigid night chasing J’wan Evans and company around the gridiron.
Evans, East Rock’s stud tailback, rushed 23 times for 236 yards, Eagles quarterback Dylan Williams passed for 236 and accounted for five touchdowns, and East Rock outlasted the visiting Falcons, 44-29, in the Region 2B championship game to advance to the first state semifinal game in program history. The Eagles will host Goochland, a winner over Poquoson in the Region A final, this week for a chance to play for the Class 2 state championship.
Top-seeded East Rock (13-0) erupted for several big plays against the No. 2 Falcons — seven Eagle plays netted 28 yards or more, and three, including two TDs, went for 61-plus — and finished with 504 yards of offense against a defense that entered the game allowing 10.8 points per game.
“They’re a good team,” Falcons senior receiver/safety Kyle Clanton said, “very fast, very physical, and it’s hard to beat a team like that. We knew coming into it that we had to be very physical and they just overpowered that.”
Central (11-2) held its own against the high-powered Eagles, using Clanton’s own home-run ability to keep within striking distance after falling quickly in a 14-0 hole in the first quarter. But the key defensive stand eluded the Falcons all game, and East Rock never trailed on a night in which it scored points on its first seven possessions.
The two most significant of those possessions came on back-to-back lengthy drives — the Eagles’ last of the first half and first of the second half — that turned a 4-point lead into a 38-21 East Rock advantage with 3:01 left in the third quarter.
Capitalizing on an ill-timed Central fumble in the second quarter, East Rock went on a nine-play, 65-yard march that ended when Williams scrambled and found Tyce McNair for a 10-yard TD pass to push the lead to 31-21 with 40 seconds left in the first half. The Eagles faced second-and-28 on the drive, and later benefitted from a roughing the passer penalty on the Falcons that Central coach Mike Yew questioned afterward and said “changed the game.”
East Rock made it an even tougher climb with a 15-play, 76-yard scoring drive after forcing a three-and-out to start the second half. The Eagles converted three third downs on the drive, which drained over seven minutes of clock, and took a 17-point lead on a 14-yard pass from Williams to Isaac Kisling.
“That was probably one of the keys there,” Eagles head coach Donnie Coleman said of the drive, “and we had some kids make some plays. I mean we had some kids that kind of ad-libbed some stuff there and got it done. Super proud of them.”
Clanton’s 73-yard touchdown run on Central’s next drive kept the Falcons’ hopes alive, but Evans broke off a 63-yard run on East Rock’s next offensive play — Clanton, in an impressive display of speed, caught the Eagles senior from behind at the 2-yard line — to set up Williams’ second rushing touchdown of the night on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Clanton was electric in his final high school football game, rushing for 146 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries, catching seven passes for 42 yards and even completing a 26-yard pass on a trick fourth-down play to set up Central’s second touchdown of the night.
“I kind of feel like for us he was our Michael Jordan in that I probably limited him … like Dean Smith did with Michael Jordan,” Yew said. “There were times we needed him (this season) and there were times we didn’t, and when we didn’t we wanted to keep him healthy. It was a big game and we wanted to cut him loose tonight, and we certainly did.”
East Rock’s own heavy hitters showed off their big-play ability early. Evans’ 61-yard TD run on the Eagles’ second possession made it a 14-point game, and Darrias Brown gave East Rock a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter with an impressive catch-and-run for a 67-yard touchdown reception.
“We missed some plays,” Yew said. “We had some guys coming up and we were being aggressive, we just missed — the Evans kid made us miss. A lot of this year we were making those plays against other running backs, that kid makes you miss.”
Central got on the board with a 1-yard plunge by running back Hunter Mullins at the end of a 13-play drive in the second quarter. Mullins added a second 1-yard TD run on the Falcons’ next drive, and Clanton’s 35-yard touchdown run pulled Central within 24-21 with 2:54 left in the first half.
The Falcons got the first big break they needed when East Rock lost a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, but Mullins returned the favor and lost a fumble on the next play on a run that started from the Eagles’ 38-yard line.
“It was untimely,” Yew said of the fumble that preceded East Rock’s long TD drive at the end of the first half. “There again, we were just down four, so if we go down there and score with that and get the ball in the second half, it could’ve been a 10-point game real, real quick. But hat’s off to Hunter Mullins, he ran his butt off last week, he ran his butt off again tonight. One turnover isn’t gonna make or break an entire game, and for us it was what it was.”
Mullins, filling in for injured starter Shane Watson, had 97 yards on 21 carries, though he carried just four times for 3 yards in the second half as East Rock’s defense bore down against Central’s power-running game.
“It was a lot of just clogging,” Mullins said of the Eagles’ defense in the second half. “They did a great job of being physical and getting down in our holes when our linemen were trying to block. Just trying to bounce it to the outside. I had a few fumbles that probably shouldn’t have happened, but it happens.”
Friday’s loss ended an impressive three-year run for Central’s seniors, who finished their careers with a 31-5 record in that span. This season’s playoff run matched the longest in program history.
“No senior class has ever gone through and had 30-some wins for us,” Yew said. “Hat’s off to them. It’s been a great group. It’s been a fun group to coach and got a lot of successful kids that are gonna come out of this group.”