Dustin Hayden

The Cougars’ Dustin Hayden looks for blockers Friday on one of his eight carries for 35 yards in the 21-13 loss to East Duplin. The signal-caller also went 3-of-5 passing for 84 more yards and a touchdown.

(Zack Nally photo)

OCEAN — Croatan’s football season came to an end Thursday with a 21-13 loss to East Duplin in the first round of the 2AA state playoffs.

Seven turnovers, a series of long runs from the visitors and one wacky touchdown marked the end of a season for the Cougars (9-3 overall) that saw them match a program-best 9-2 regular season finish.

“That’s the playoffs for you,” Croatan coach Andrew Gurley said. “Only one team in this bracket is going to walk away happy. We felt good about our game plan. East Duplin played a great game. Both teams made a lot of mistakes. They moved the ball well, but we got breaks too. We had a few chances we couldn’t capitalize on, and they’re a good football team.”

Croatan was seeded No. 8 in the 2AA bracket after placing second in the 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference with a 6-1 record. The program is on an un upward trend overall, winning 15 of its last 20 games.

“I’m just proud of our guys,” Gurley said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted. We had high expectations coming into this week. Any time you finish 9-2, you want to follow it up with a couple playoff wins at least. Hopefully the players coming back allow this to sting a little and make them hungrier. There are a lot of little things you can take from tonight, I just hate it for the guys because it’s over.”

No. 9-seeded East Duplin (7-5) will move on to play top-seeded Randleman (11-0) in the second round of the playoffs. The Panthers advanced to the postseason after tying for second in the tough 2A East Central Conference, which includes 2A bracket members Clinton (No. 1), Wallace-Rose Hill (No. 10), Midway (No. 12) and Goldsboro (No. 14).

“Our conference is one of the best in the state, if not the best,” East Duplin coach Battle Holley said. “Three weeks ago, we were looking at Wallace-Rose Hill and Goldsboro and knew if we didn’t win one of those games, we weren’t even getting into the playoffs.”

East Duplin wound up beating both teams, finishing the regular season ranked No. 43 in the classification per the final regular season adjusted MaxPreps.com rankings. Croatan came into the game ranked No. 41.

“Croatan is a lot like us,” Holley said. “Their kids are going to play hard, and they give everything they got. We can’t ask more of players. We were happy to be here, we were happy to win and we’re happy to get another chance to play.”

Both teams came into the contest with reputable run games, each prone to long, sustained drives. The Panthers also proved to be a big-play offense with 11 plays of 10 yards or more and five of 20 yards or more.

Croatan’s first possession almost ran out of gas after three plays before J.J. Pritchett turned a fake punt into a 6-yard gain. The offense moved the chains two more times but couldn’t finish. Pritchett punted for real from the Panther 43-yard line, and Colton Sullivan kept the ball from going into the end zone to pin the visitors on their own 1.

East Duplin called a timeout on third-and-4, a move that paid off immediately when Keyon McClarin found a gap on a counter and sprinted 93 yards for six points.

The Cougars couldn’t respond on their next drive, marching 34 yards on 10 plays before sputtering to a stop. A costly fumble on third-and-13 leading to a punt on fourth down was only made worse when East Duplin’s Demontrel Carr returned it 18 yards to give his offense a short field.

The Panthers didn’t waste the opportunity, making short work of 48 yards in three plays, including a 34-yard run from Brady Johnson and a 14-yard run from McClarin to finish it off. McClarin rushed 10 times for a whopping 193 yards in the game. The Panthers went for 385 total on the ground, gashing consistent holes through the Croatan defensive front.

“We felt like we could move the ball coming in,” Holley said. “Tonight, we turned it over a ton and had a few touchdowns called back and still found a way to win. Credit to the defense for holding (Croatan) back and credit to the offense for not quitting when things didn’t go their way.”

The Cougars needed a response and quickly. They got it from quarterback Dustin Hayden who rolled left on first down from his own 28-yard line and threw across his body to a wide-open Zach Hoy for a 72-yard scoring strike. An Aiden Kimbrell kick made it a 13-7 game with 7:29 left in the second quarter.

The turnover parade began late in the second quarter. First, East Duplin fumbled on first-and-goal form the 25-yard line. Four plays later, though, Croatan coughed it up on a pitch to set the Panthers up on the Cougar 37-yard line.

East Duplin had time to run six plays, but a costly holding call and a fumble that rolled out of bounds staled the drive into a turnover on downs with just a few ticks left on the first-half clock.

East Duplin’s first drive in the second half also ended in a fumble, the second of four for the visitors. After a Croatan punt, however, the visitors extended their lead to 21-7 with an 11-yard run from McClarin.

The Cougars followed with their most impressive drive of the night, marching 67 yards on 13 plays. Hayden was the catalyst behind the drive, rushing three times for 14 yards and completing two passes for 20 yards.

Croatan turned to the signal-caller on fourth-and-4 at the Panther 13-yard line. The junior rolled right and targeted Andrew Mendolia in the end zone, but the pass was picked off by East Duplin’s Deonta Scarborough. The cornerback looked to run the ball out but fumbled it into the end zone, where Keegan Frandsen pounced on it for the touchdown.

The Cougars got one last chance to tie the game and force overtime after Alex Barnes fell on a Panther fumble at his own 27-yard line. The opportunity was never fully realized as the visitors pressured Croatan on every snap.

Hayden was sacked for an 8-yard loss to set up third-and-16, prompting a timeout. The Cougars set up a passing play on the other side of the pause, but the pass rush was instantly on Hayden who tossed the ball away in desperation. The incomplete pass was deemed a fumble to give East Duplin the game’s last possession.

Croatan’s leading rusher in the game was Colton Sullivan with 13 carries for 50 yards. Pritchett carried nine times for 27 yards and Hayden eight times for 35. Barnes had 9 yards on seven carries. Hoy had one catch for 72 yard, while Dakota Grey and Pritchett had one each for 10 yards.

East Duplin had two 100-yard rushers and a third come close. McClarin led the way with 10 carries of 193 yards, while Russell Gaby toted the ball 17 times for 103 yards and Brady Johnson seven times for 73 yards.

“Right now, the moment is about the guys and our seniors and all the effort they put in these four years,” Gurley said. “It was a privilege coming to work every day with these guys. I looked forward to going to practice every day. I couldn’t wait until game day every week. That’s a testament to the character of our players, our coaches and our program.”

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