KING — Surry Central came into Friday night’s game riding a nine-game losing streak against West Stokes, but needed that all-important win to clinch the Western Piedmont Athletic Conference championship.
The Eagles’ Riley Dockery scored the go-ahead touchdown with just eight seconds left in the game to secure the 26-21 victory and clinch the outright championship, the first in many years for Surry Central.
“This is big, really big,” said Central head coach Monty Southern. “The last time we won a conference championship, a lot of these kids were in kindergarten and first grade.”
The Eagles struck first, but not until the second quarter of play. Martin Palacios scored on a 3-yard run after Eric Ramirez’s 74-yard run two plays earlier to set up the score. Palacios’ extra point made the score 7-0 at the half.
The first half was a half of turnovers. Each team had opportunities to score from the red zone, but two fumbles and an interception by each team prevented that.
“We were sloppy at times,” stated Wildcat head coach Jimmy Upchurch. “We shot ourselves in the foot several times with penalties and turnovers. At this point of the season, you would hope that we would have those things worked out, but it has plagued us all year.”
The Wildcats would only need two plays to knot the score up at the start of the third period. Palacios’ kickoff sailed to the 7-yard line and West Stokes pushed the ball out of bounds there. After a one-yard gain from Devan Hairston on the first play, he burst up the middle and jetted down the right sideline for a 92-yard gallop. Patrick Ellis’ extra point tied the score at seven.
Surry Central responded with a long scoring drive. With a 12-play drive that included one costly penalty from the Wildcats on fourth down, Dockery scored on a one-yard push to the end zone. With the extra point, the Eagles surged ahead 14-7 with 7:39 left in the quarter.
Not to be outdone, the Wildcats used a sustained drive of their own, driving 63 yards in 14 plays to score on a 13-yard run from Hairston. The Wildcats picked up a first down on a fourth-and-19 from their 33-yard line.
“That was big,” commented Upchurch. “With that score, and us gaining the momentum back entering the fourth quarter, (it) put us in the position we wanted to be.”
After a three-and-out by the Eagles, the Wildcats started the fourth quarter on the Surry Central 10-yard line after a big gain by Hairston to end the quarter. The Eagle defense stiffened the Wildcats when Jed Kidd intercepted the ball in the end zone for a touchback.
The Golden Eagles then went 80 yards in just five plays to regain the lead. Quarterback Chandler Johnson scooted 27 yards up the middle for the score. A bad snap prevented the Eagles from tacking on the extra point. With 7:57 left in the game, the Eagles led 20-14.
West Stokes faced a fourth-and-9 from its 30-yard line on their next possession, but a fake punt by the Cats gained them a first down, and momentum swung back in the home team’s favor. Using that energy, West completed a 13-play drive and Hairston scored with just 1:17 left in the game. Ellis came in for the all-important extra point and gave the Wildcats the lead at 21-20.
Johnson orchestrated another comeback for the Eagles, the sixth time they have trailed in the fourth quarter this season. Starting at their own 35, the Golden Eagles did it again. Ten plays covered the distance, and Johnson handed off to Dockery on his team’s final play of the game, leaving the Wildcats just eight ticks on the clock.
“We’ve been in a lot of close games this season, a lot of one- and two-point games,” Southern said. “Our kids have a ton of heart. Every kid on this season always believes. I am just so proud of ’em.”
The Wildcats outgained the Eagles in total yardage for the game at 411-384. Hairston led West Stokes with 257 yards rushing and all three scores for the Cats. Ramirez finished with 124 yards rushing and Johnson finished with 127 yards passing for Central.
Defensively for the Wildcats, Tyler Walker led both teams with 15 tackles and three for a loss. Kaleb Dunn led the Eagles with 11 tackles.
The Eagles finished the season at 10-1 and 5-0 in conference play. They will wait for the brackets to be released next weekend and hope for a top seed in their state playoff bracket. West Stokes will gain a playoff spot, but will be on the road at 6-5 overall, and 2-3 in conference play. Fortunately for the Cats, the new playoff system the state is using works in their favor. After the automatic bid for all conference champions in the playoffs, they will take the rest of the teams by overall record, and not conference record and the way they finish.