MOREHEAD CITY — Senior night was a time of happy and sad tears Friday at West Carteret.
The Patriots capped their football season with a rousing 21-9 win over visiting Swansboro in front of a vibrant Morehead City crowd wrapped head to toe in frost-fighting, winter gear.
With the state playoffs out of the question for both teams, the victory in 40-degree weather was the best possible sendoff for the home team.
“We had an opportunity to do something tonight that not a lot of teams in the state will get to do – end their season with a win,” West coach Daniel Barrow said. “There’s tears flowing like there always are (at the end of a season), but I’m happy we got to end this on a positive note.”
West trailed for most of the game before scoring 14 straight in the fourth quarter to improve to 4-7 overall and 2-3 in the 3A Coastal Conference.
“My heart breaks for Swansboro,” Barrow said, “because at the end of the day, we’re all out here playing a game we love, and no one wants to lose. Swansboro was a classy group coming in here tonight. It’s probably the classiest team I’ve ever coached against. I’m heartbroken for all the seniors tonight who have to end their season.”
Swansboro moved to 6-5 overall and 1-4 in the conference with the loss. Fourth place was the most either team could hope for with Havelock (5-0), Northside-Jacksonville (4-1) and Jacksonville (3-2) owning the top three spots and the only postseason positions.
“We didn’t execute at the end, and we made some mistakes that (West) capitalized on,” Swansboro coach Tim Laspada said. “Credit to (West), they played with a lot of heart. We knew it was going to be a close game. We just didn’t execute at the end.”
The two teams met amicably at midfield for a postgame reflection, with both looking to focus on the positives of the night.
“Our positives are, these are great men,” Laspada said. “They’re going to go out and do great things in life. As coaches, we want to win, but what matters to me most is how these kids are going to do in life.”
The game was a close one from the start, thanks to a number of near turnovers by both teams. West fumbled on the snap twice in its opening drive – they fumbled four times in the game but only lost one – and was forced to punt. C.J. Rocci’s kick went 39 yards to pin the Pirates on their own 11-yard line, but the visitors marched 89 yards in nine plays to put the first points on the scoreboard.
Quarterback Damien Flores carried the offense on the drive with three passes for 87 yards and a run for four. The junior was the key to Swansboro’s production all night, finishing 15-of-29 for 252 of the visitors’ 352 total yards. He used his legs to escape pressure twice on the opening possession, connecting with Joel Hunt first for a 40-yard gain and then again for a 21-yard touchdown. He also completed a 26-yard pass to Justin Biggs on the drive.
“This game could have gone either way,” Barrow said. “We were down for a large part of the game, but we didn’t panic. Love to see that.”
Thanks to a missed point-after attempt, West actually took its first lead of the game late in the first period with a 7-yard run from Camden Ballou and the PAT from Rocci. Ballou and Rocci were the engines behind the Patriots’ run-heavy offense, combining for 200 total yards. Ballou had 25 carries for 115 yards and Rocci 12 for 69 yards. Rocci also had a catch for 16 yards.
The drive, helped tremendously by a quarterback sneak on third-and-1 from Jaiden Rittenhouse that wound up going for 35 yards, was West’s only one that went for points in the first half. The three remaining possessions ended in a blocked field goal, a fumble and a punt after three offensive penalties for 20 yards.
“I felt like in the first half, for the most part, we were our own worst enemy offensively,” Barrow said. “We couldn’t hang on to the football, and we really couldn’t get much going. We tried a few different packages and a few different things, but at the end of the day, we went with what worked – snap the ball directly to Camden Ballou and C.J. Rocci and let them go to work.”
Swansboro took the lead back with 6:07 to go in the first half on a 32-yard field goal from Evan Radley. The Pirates started the drive on the Patriot 37-yard line after a fumble recovery. The Bucs had another chance to score late in the second quarter, marching 50 yards in six plays, but Flores had a throw to the end zone on second-and-16 intercepted by Dakota Hudson.
Hudson had two picks on the night, as well as six carries for 49 yards on offense. The senior was the catalyst for West’s second lead of the night, earning a first down with a 7-yard run and then putting his team on the Swansboro 25-yard line with a 25-yard run. Both runs were sweeps to the outside with excellent blocking from Ethan Chambers on the edge.
“Those (runs) were key,” Barrow said. “As they were starting to pack it down inside, Dakota was able to pop a few out. I also want to give a shout-out to the great perimeter blocking by Ethan Chambers out there. He was a madman out there.”
Hudson’s legs helped along a scoring drive that went 80 yards in 13 plays, ending with a 1-yard scoring run from Ballou. The senior running back also earned a first-and-goal on third down with a 2-yard run to set up the touchdown.
The Patriots’ long scoring drive – which followed a missed 30-yard field goal from Radley that dinked off the uprights – appeared to take the wind out of Swansboro. Flores’ first pass was nearly picked off by Hudson, and later, a straight-forward run on fourth-and-1 resulted in a turnover on downs.
“We just did too many incorrect things,” Laspada said. “We had false starts, jumped offsides and lost the turnover battle. We had a chance to jump on some of their bad snaps and didn’t.”
West took over on the next drive and moved down the field swiftly. Ballou ran it for 5 yards on first down, Hudson moved the chains with a 21-yard run and Rocci scored from 25 yards out to ice the game.
Swansboro took over on offense two more times, with the first drive ending in a fumble on third-and-goal from the 2-yard line – a fumble recovered by Anthony Piccini – and the second drive ending with a turnover on downs.
The most creative play of the night came from the first of Swansboro’s last two possessions. Flores completed a pass to Joel Hunt in the flats, only to have the receiver lateral it to running back Isaac Wooten for a 36-yard gain.
Wooten finished the night with two catches for 85 yards and 20 rushes for 65. Hunt had eight receptions for 141 yards, allowing him to break the program’s single-season record for receiving yards. The senior finished the year with 62 catches for 1,072 yards and 14 touchdowns.
“I love this group. I’m absolutely going to miss them,” Laspada said.
Rocci’s one catch for 16 yards was the passing highlight for West, which only attempted six passes on the night. Rittenhouse finished 3-of-4 for 33 yards. The junior quarterback also rushed three times for 49 yards.
Defensive standouts for West were Piccini with nine tackles and a fumble recovery, Will Bodnar with 13 tackle assists and Hudson with two interceptions.