Clinton hosted the Northside Monarchs in a third round NCHSAA 2AA playoff game on Friday night. The teams treated the packed house to a great high school football game that featured two talented teams in a down-to-the-wire struggle that was not decided until the final play of the game. In the end, the home team Dark Horses came up short, falling to the streaking Monarchs by the final score of 21-14.
Clinton’s defense dominated the first half, allowing the Monarchs only 15 offensive plays and limiting Northside to 24 yards of total offense in the first two quarters. But the Dark Horses still trailed at the break, 6-0, giving up a 96-yard punt return for a touchdown late in the second quarter.
The Dark Horse offense had success moving the football against the Monarchs in the first half, twice visiting the red zone but coming up empty on both trips. Late in the first quarter, Clinton quarterback Kris Williams completed a pass to Tyion Wright on third-and-11 to keep the drive alive. The drive stalled early in the second quarter when the Dark Horses failed to convert on a fourth down from the Monarch’s 19-yard line, turning the ball over on downs.
Both defenses continued their stingy play, forcing punts on each of the next three possessions. With just over three minutes remaining in the half, Chandler Perry drove a booming punt deep into the Monarchs end of the field. Northside’s Demetrius Jones fielded the ball at his own 4-yard line, darted to his left evading a Dark Horse tackler, then following a wall of blockers 96 yards to the end zone. The PAT failed, but Northside had seized the momentum and a 6-0 lead with 3:09 left in the first half.
Northside attempted to drive the dagger deeper, trying an onside kick that was fielded on the fly by Hampton Brock, giving the Horses excellent field position near midfield. The Clinton offense went to work, once again driving the ball down to the Northside 16-yard line where they converted a 4th and 1 play to keep the drive alive. On first down from the Monarch’s 14-yard line, Williams threw a pass toward the end zone that was picked off by the Monarchs, preserving the visiting team’s 6-point lead going into the break.
The Dark Horses took the opening kickoff of the second half, taking advantage of good starting field position at their 39-yard line. Clinton moved the ball efficiently, gaining three consecutive first downs and moving the ball into Northside territory. The Clinton drive seemed to be snuffed out by a Northside interception in the end zone, but the play was negated by defensive holding giving the Dark Horses a first down at the Monarch’s 12-yard line.
Using four running plays the Dark Horses ground out the final 12 yards of the drive with Williams taking the ball into the end zone from a yard out to cap the 61-yard scoring drive. Perry added the extra point and Clinton took a slim 7-6 lead at the 5:32 mark of the third quarter.
Northside took to the air on their next drive, moving the ball quickly into the Dark Horses’ end of the field, looking nearly unstoppable on their first possessions of the second half. The Dark Horse defense came up with a huge play when Wright made an acrobatic interception inside the Clinton 5-yard line to thwart the Northside scoring threat.
Clinton was unable to move the ball out of the shadows of their own goal and Perry was forced to punt from his end zone. Perry hit a low line drive kick that bounced across midfield and rolled dead at the Monarch’s 37-yard line. Northside, seemed to hit their stride in the passing game, completing a 36-yard pass on the first play of the fourth quarter to set up first-and-goal from just inside the 10-yard line. On the next play the Monarchs sent three receivers into the right corner of the end zone, confusing the Dark Horse defenders for their second score of the game with 11:42 remaining. Northside elected to go for two and converted on an end-around run by the quarterback to regain the lead at 14-7.
Clinton moved the ball out near midfield on the ensuing possession before the Monarchs forced another Perry punt. This time the left-footer booted the ball down inside the 5-yard line, putting the visitors backs to the wall. The Monarchs gained a first down, moving the ball out to the 24-yard line before the Clinton defense forced a fourth down and a Northside punt.
The Dark Horses got the ball back at the Northside 47-yard line after a short punt. Looking for anything to ignite the offense, Clinton went to a wildcat offensive formation with Wright taking over at quarterback. Wright gave the ball to Ryheem Skinner for two nice gains moving the ball down to the 24-yard line. After being trapped in the backfield for a three-yard loss on first down, Wright dropped back to pass on second down, finding Prentice Murphy in the end zone for a 27-yard scoring strike. Perry’s PAT was good and the Horses had pulled even at 14-14 with 3:25 remaining in the game.
Northside took over on their own 20-yard line with 3:09 remaining in the game with 80 yards and the Dark Horse defense standing between them and the fourth round of the playoffs. Twice the Monarchs converted third-and-long plays to keep the drive alive, moving the ball down to the Clinton 16-yard line with less than half a minute left in the game.
On first down from the Dark Horse 16-yard line Jonte Mcmullen dropped back to pass. With the pocket collapsing around him, Mcmullen pulled the ball down and weaved his way through the defense and across the goal line for the go-ahead score with 22 seconds remaining in the game. The Monarch PAT made the score 21-14 and all but sealed the game for Northside.
Clinton made a last-gasp effort, fair-catching the kickoff then making things interesting. On first down from their own 39-yard line Wright scrambled around, finally flinging a pass toward two receivers. Williams tipped the ball and Murphy came down with it at the Northside 30-yard line, setting up one final assault on the end zone with five seconds remaining.
Wright dropped back and sent the Hail Mary pass toward the right corner of the end zone where a group of players went up for the ball. A Northside defender came away with the interception to end the game and set off a Monarch celebration.
After the game, a disappointed Bob Lewis commented on the season-ending loss.
“We shot ourselves in the foot quite a few times, especially in the first half. We had our chances and hurt ourselves with penalties and some missed assignments,” the coach said. “You have to give Northside a lot of credit. They have a good football team and have improved a lot since we played the first time. They were much more aggressive and I told our guys all week long that they were on a mission and are a dangerous team.”
Lewis continued talking about his seniors and what they meant to the program, saying “this is a great group of kids. These seniors have won a lot of football games and I just hate to see them go out this way. But there are a lot of teams that would like to say they finished up 13-1. They have accomplished a lot and worked so hard for us throughout the season.”
Senior Skinner led the Clinton offensive effort carrying the ball 24 times for 124 yards. Wright carried 10 times for 17 yards and Isaiah Page had five carries for 27 yards. Williams called his own number four times for 4 yards and one score.
In the passing game, Williams was 3-of-11 for 22 yards and two interceptions. Wright was 2-for-2 for 57 yards and a touchdown. Murphy caught two passes for 57 yards and a score, Mike Kramer had one catch for 8 yards and Wright made two grabs for 14 yards.
On defense, Kramer led the way with 10 tackles, Skinner and Devonte Smith added nine tackles apiece and Wright had four tackles, an interception and a pass break-up. Page tallied seven stops and a pass break-up, Murphy had five tackles and a pass break-up and Khari Williams made five tackles.
The loss dropped Clinton’s final record to 13-1. Northside improves to 11-3 overall and will face East Duplin for the Eastern Region Championship next Friday in Beulaville.