Senior LBs Josh Proffitt (9) and Charlie Lehman (4) are Rocket-launched tacklers, honing in on Weddington’s burly initial QB David Bayha (7). Photo by Pete Zamplas.
By Pete Zamplas- Wildfires are finally extinguished in most of the Asheville area, but still burning for A.C. Reynolds is determination to eventually get by Weddington in 3AA playoffs. It did not happen on a frigid Friday night, and the drought continues against this postseason nemesis.
Weddington scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter with sophomore Whitner Litton in relief at quarterback, to beat Reynolds 21-13. The Warriors knocked the Rockets out of the third round of football playoffs for the third year in a row.
Undersized but gritty and sure-tackling Weddington swarmed on ACR game-breakers to contain them, often blitzing for extra pressure, to win a defensive battle over ACR and its huge line. The West Region semifinal was between the top two seeds with ACR (11-3) first, and two green-clad squads.
QB Nate St. Onge sprints through a canyon-sized hole created by Jake Setterlind (72), Kyle McWhirt (74) and other Rockets. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
The defeat snapped ACR’s nine-game winning streak, and was the 10th win in a row for the visitors from the Charlotte suburb of Weddington. WHS (11-3) hosts third-seeded Hickory Ridge Ragin’ Bulls (12-2) Friday. State title games are Dec. 17. Weddington, which opened in 2000 (compared to 1955 for ACR), has not yet won a state title.
“We played our guts out,” Reynolds head coach Shane Laws said. “They made two or three more (big) plays. And that’s all it takes.” He encouraged his players, for winning the Mountain Athletic Conference. ACR is unbeaten in MAC play for two years.
Both defenses sparkled. The Reynolds Wrap® defense yielded 30 points (6.0 ppg.) in its five prior games. Junior linebacker Frank Torres made over 150 tackles this year. WHS was also stingy, at 8.1 points. Reynolds’ 13 points on offense was 30 points below its average in 11 prior contests.
Weddington held Reynolds to 246 yards — half on the ground, half in the air. ACR nearly tripled that output a week earlier, with a school playoff-record 678 yards in beating Erwin 60-7.
Yet when the Rockets began an 80-yard quest to tie the game with three minutes to go, one sensed they were overdue for a big play — such as by big back Sean Jones or fast fellow senior Keyal Talbert. Sure enough, Jones blazed through and veered left to reach the Weddington 25 in the final minute. That was merely ACR’s third gain of over 25 yards all night.
ACR’s Dre Dowdle (4) bear-hugs star sub QB Whitner Litton (12). Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Jones told The Tribune he sensed a spike in enthusiasm and confidence in the huddle, after his breakaway run. The Rockets sensed more than ever in the fourth quarter they could go the distance, and score a TD then a two-pointer to tie.
Biggest Rocket Jake Setterlind (6-6, 315 jr.) huddled his linemates on sidelines ahead of that drive, urging them on and keeping them loose with humor.
However, the drive eventually died on downs on an incompletion on fourth-and-15.
The game’s first score was a one-yard plunge by quarterback Nathan St. Onge, among ACR juniors who emerged as stars and lead prospects for 2017. Laws kept calling St. Onge’s number on four short runs starting on first and goal to go, and he got in on the last try. That capped an 18-play drive. It took three fourth-down conversions, including a run by Talbert on a fake punt.
Weddington answered in the same (second) quarter, on the first of its three TD runs. The game remained tied at seven at halftime, after WHS’s Matt Peterson missed a 46-yard field goal. That was soon after he curved a 51-yarder through the uprights with just enough distance. But an offsides penalty negated it, triggered thunderous boos from the visiting stands and pushed WHS out of range. The Warriors went for it on fourth down, made it, drove to the ACR 15, but were set back by penalties and came up empty on Peterson’s wide kick.
Reynolds again seized the lead when St. Onge beat a blitz and hit R’mani Lynch on a screen, for a 31-yard score in the third quarter. The officials ruled the extra point was wide. The score was 13-7. This proved crucial.
Thus when the Warriors scored in the first minute of the final quarter, the good extra-point kick gave them a 14-13 lead. As Laws noted, ACR now had to score rather than be more cautious if there was a tie and overtime loomed. A WHS pick at ACR’s 11 set up an insurance score two plays later on a wildcat snap, for an eight-point lead.
After the loss ended what many thought could be a state title run, tears flowed among some ACR players and many of their student fans.
Eli Hembree (24) and top tackler Frank Torres (44) squash the Weddington ball carrier. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
St. Onge finishes this season with 1,915 passing yards and 35 TDs throwing and running to go with over 1,000 yards running. He is the sole QB in Buncombe County in the double-1,000 club. His quickness on keepers is a pivotal part of the ACR playbook.
Jones and Talbert conclude their Rocket careers by combining for about 1,700 rushing yards and 18 TDs (nine each). Talbert was among three Rockets with more than 30 catches; juniors Lynch and Kaedin Robinson led the way and should again team with St. Onge for a prolific passing attack next year.
Coach Laws has won more (17) playoff games than any ACR head football coach. He won the 4A state title in 2009, his third season at the helm.
Two WNC teams reached round four, and collide in 1A — Murphy hosts Mitchell, which ousted Cherokee last Friday. WNC schools eliminated Friday were Reynolds, Hendersonville and Pisgah.
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