A.C. Reynolds plays for its fourth state football championship and first in a decade on Saturday, after coming from behind Friday to defeat Sun Valley Spartans 28-25 as quarterback Alex Flinn totaled over 430 yards to ignite the Rocket attack.
“We’re going to state!” was the jubilant shout of Rocket players and fans, as they flooded R.L. Dalton Stadium’s field after the conquest in the December chill.
“Big-time players make plays,” head coach Shane Laws said of his Rockets. “We played much better in the second half. We just didn’t finish drives in the first half.” He encouraged players in his halftime pep talk to relax and focus, to “go out and play our game” and let preparation and play execution turn the tide.
“Let the dogs loose” is what star linebacker Frank Torres liked best about Coach Laws calling for greater defensive pressure. The Rockets responded, and fought back to prevail.
Their 3AA title game against New Hanover (also 14-1) starts at 7 p.m. in Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham. Both teams are second seeds — ACR in the West, and NHHS out East. MaxPreps ranks New Hanover 13th best among all N.C. teams, and ACR 20th.
New Hanover, from Wilmington, outscore foes by a 41.6-17 average. But the orange-and-black-clad Wildcats barely won their last two playoff games by three points each.
They feature passing of lanky 6-foot-4 junior Blake Walston (3,918 yards, 38 TD, 14 INT) to two 1,000-yard receivers. Walston threw for over 320 yards in two of the last three games, and for about 400 yards in two earlier contests. His passer rating is 106.3.
Reynolds field general Flinn has a sterling 123.3 rating, and also majestic stats. He has thrown for 3,743 yards, 40 TDs and merely eight picks. He passed for 282 yards and a score on Friday, and ran for 140 including a 24-yard TD scamper. He averaged 279 passing yards over his last five games.
The 6-2, 205-pound junior has run for seven scores, averaging four yards a carry. Leading rusher I’dre Bell is within 37 yards of 1,000 yards, and averages 7.4 per carry. Bell totaled 101 yards on four catches including a 68-yard scoring play early in the second half. The junior has run for 10 TDs.
Yet another dual threat — swift Nate St. Onge — ran into the end zone nine times. Many were as a “wildcat” running QB; he was the main QB last year. Half (20 of 40) of Flinn TD passes have gone to St. Onge (12), fellow senior Bryson Patton (10) and Bell (8). Both Bell (1,741) and St. Onge (1,580) have exceeded 1,500 all-purpose yards, and combined for nearly half (39 of 84) of Rocket TDs.
St. Onge grinned widely during a post-game phone call with elder brother Justin St. Onge, who was in Texas. Hard-hitting linebacker Justin played in the 2012 Shrine Bowl, after starring for four Rocket seasons. As a freshman, he helped ACR win the ’09 state title. He walked on at UNC-CH. He and ACR alum Ryan McLaughlin in recent years competed for Haywood Community College in the Carhartt Bassmaster College Series National Championship.
I’dre Bell holds up the ball, as he scores on a 68-yard pass play. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Justin has been fishing with an inspirational ploy, by lending his football title ring to the family home. It sits on the kitchen table. Nate St. Onge told The Tribune he glances at it daily, as reminder of the ultimate goal.
“I’m proud of our defense,” Nate said. He said coming back to win a close game is a critical dress rehearsal for the title showdown, as this was the first time ACR trailed since losing at Shelby in week two.
Jake Settlerind said “I pumped up my guys” on the sideline, after Sun Valley matched ACR’s first score of the second half and the Rockets knew they needed to score again to stay in the game. The 6-6, 290 senior guard’s brother John Nick Setterlind shined on that ’09 title squad. Jake said it’s “back to work” preparing to win it all.
Current Rockets were age nine or younger in ‘09, and in youth ball, and dreamed of their own state title, several said. Head coach Shane Laws’ motto is “Put a ball on the wall” — in the open spot of the state title sign, on the edge of the field.
Laws commended his troops’ “hearts and guts” to battle back and win. In the post-victory huddle, he told the Rockets he was proudest of the “way you responded” when down most of the game. With the title march nearly complete, this sharp motivator and game tactician eased pressure by urging players that “now you’ll really have fun” playing for the crown.
Alex Flinn is elated about ACR reaching the state title game. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Laws led ACR to the 4A title in 2009. That remains the latest football state title by a team in Buncombe or adjacent counties. The other WNC team in a title game this time is Cherokee, at the smallest (1A) level.
Sun Valley (11-4), the 12th seed from Monroe, earned the nickname of Monroe Shockers after stunning off top seed Mount Tabor 27-20 in round three. Sun Valley (SV) scored at will on three runs for a 19-10 lead over ACr.
But the Rocket offense was in full throttle under a full moon, in outscoring the visitors 15-6 in a decisive third quarter.
Spartan QB Sam Howell ran for three TDs Friday, and threw for one score. He came in ranked third-best among all QBs in the state. He reportedly has the Vols among SEC and ACC teams after him. Howell is same-sized as Flinn, and also a strong-armed junior and rugged runner. Howell threw for 3,090 yards, 35 TDs and 11 picks heading in, and ran for 1,519 yards and 21 TDs to total 56 scores. His passer rating was 108.7.
Howell misfired at times to face several third downs and long yardage to go, only to repeatedly connect for first downs. When scrambling, he often bounced and spun off of tacklers.
ACR gained yardage more consistently. Flinn also breaks tackles running, with more direct bruising. He shines in deciding what to do based on defensive pursuit in a run-pass option (RPO), and said he relishes that split-second challenge. Flinn ran to the two-yard-line, to set up a field goal to open ACR scoring. Reynolds was down 7-3, then 13-3 after the Spartans scored but the kicker missed a crucial extra point with Torres in on him.
Next, Flinn scrambled 24 yards for a TD by charging up the middle then cutting left. That slashed the deficit to 13-10. He one-upped Howell in crunch time, starting with the third play of the second half. Flinn passed to Bell on a crossing pattern near midfield, and Bell raced the rest of the way for a 68-yard TD. ACR was within two at 19-17, cashing in on the initial halftime goal of scoring on that opening drive.
Howell answered, with a TD pass to Anthony Marple. A scoring barrage seemed imminent. But the extra point was blocked, to keep ACR within one score (a TD and two-pointer) at 25-17.
The Spartans foolishly squib kicked short, instead of booting deep and ACR started at its 46. Giving Reynolds merely a half-field to go is more lethal than salting one’s meal with a double dose of cyanide.
Reynolds scored — again sparked by a Flinn run. He burst 49 yards down the right side, to inside the ten. St. Onge sprinted left four yards for the TD, with 5:23 left in the third quarter. St. Onge was QB for the two-point try. On the RPO, he tossed to Eli Hembree for the two-point conversion to knot the score at 25.
Reynolds clearly had momentum on offense, with over a quarter to play. The “vibe” was upbeat, Flinn noted, and “we kept pushing the ball” to repeatedly drive and score.
In perhaps the most pivotal drive, the defense halted the Spartans on downs at the ACR 18..
The winning points came on the next drive, with Ethan Blakey’s 30-yard field goal with 5:49 to play. (He hit a 26-yard field goal in the first half.) ACR held again defensively, then ran out the clock by driving to near the goal line.
A key was the double trouble pass rushing of Torres (no. 44) and Talon James (twice that, at no. 88). James said ACR “found a way” to contain Howell enough, and the usual defensive intimidation finally seemed to “scare” blockers into hesitancy.
The Rockets get after Sun Valley QB Sam Howell (14), who throws toward the ACR state title sign. Note its lower right corner has space, for a football emblem with 2017 for a state title. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
Four Rockets have made at least 100 tackles — Torres (134; 9.6 tpg.), Hembree (112), James (100) and Coleman Minter (100) — with Elijah Klepac (95) and Chayce Plummer (94) close. Plummer (27), James (25) and Klepac (20) have the most tackles for losses. Hembree has blocked four field goals. Andrew McKay leads ACR with seven interceptions.
Reynolds thwarted 4,052-yard passer QB Brady Pope a week before, to beat South Iredell 17-7. The ACR Defense had yielded seven or fewer points in each of its first three playoff games, and earlier shut out three foes in a row. ACR won its three state tiles in defensive slugfests.
Reynolds won 4A state football titles under Bobby Poss in 1999 (by 7-0 over Fayetteville Douglas Byrd) and 2002 (by 14-7 over Northern Nash), then in 2009 by 14-13 over Harnett Central (HC). HC scored a TD with 48 seconds left, went for two, but the run was stuffed. Yet the Trojans recovered their onside kick, and tried a 42-yard field goal to win on the final play. Shrine Bowl DE Ben Councell blocked it, to seal victory. QB Caleb Pressley was the game offensive MVP, then played for UNC.
In ’02, the Rocket defense held Nash to 44 yards rushing. An 88-yard punt return spoiled the shutout with a half-minute left. Game MVP Trevor Steele ran for 154 yards and a TD.
ACR’s defense was top-rated in the state in 1998, and in’99 when shutting out nine of 16 foes. The 13-10 semifinal win snapped Richmond County’s 44-game win streak. The title game MVP was all-state DL Jon Haney. This was the first state football title by a team in Buncombe County since Asheville in 1922.
Now Reynolds and Laws seek the school’s first crown in smaller 3AA. The green-clad and gold-trimmed Rockets won it all in Chapel Hill twice and also in Raleigh, and now go for The Triangle’s triple gold in Durham.