BEAUFORT — The Croatan football team capped one of the greatest regular seasons in school history Friday with a dominating 49-0 win over East Carteret.
The Cougars tied the best-ever record with a 9-2 mark and captured the program’s third county championship, which included a 26-20 triumph over West Carteret earlier this season. They tied the 2015 team for the record and joined that outfit and the 2003 squad as the only county champions.
“They are a special group, they really are,” Croatan coach Andrew Gurley said. “We’ve got eight seniors, and they do a great job, but you would think we have 20 seniors. We have some juniors, and even sophomores, and it feels like they’re seniors, because they have totally bought in.”
The victory over the Mariners (3-8 overall, 3-4 league) in the contest, affectionately known as the Blizzard Bowl, provided a night of ice cream at Dairy Queen for the Croatan players. It was the Cougars’ first victory over East since 2015.
They almost had another reason to celebrate after winning their seventh game in a row.
The Cougars were 40.8 seconds away from capturing the second conference championship in school history (2015). Richlands took a 20-19 lead over Southwest Onslow with that much time on the clock before the Stallions drove the length of the field to win 25-20.
Had Richlands held on, Southwest Onslow, Croatan and Richlands would have finished 6-1 apiece in the 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference to create a three-way tie atop the standings. Coaches drew from a hat earlier in the week to determine playoff seedings in case there was a tie, and Gurley drew the top seed.
Instead, Southwest Onslow earned its third straight Coastal 8 crown with a third consecutive undefeated run through the conference. The Cougars are the runner-up for the second year in a row at 6-1.
Last year’s second-place league finish seemed far-fetched after they started the season 0-4 in Gurley’s first year as coach. He’s led the team to a 15-4 record in the 19 games since. Croatan is 11-3 in the Coastal 8 over the last two seasons after going 5-2 in 2018.
The fourth straight loss to begin last year turned the season around. The Cougars had been outscored 126-18 in the first three games, and even though they fell in the fourth contest, they found an offensive identity in a 49-44 setback at East.
It was Croatan scoring 49 points in the rematch, but the visitors held the Mariners scoreless this time with a suffocating defense that limited East to just 46 total yards.
“Defensively, we flew all over the place,” Gurley said. “We took away the things we thought they were going to do. We knew if we could slow their momentum down at the beginning of the game, we would be in good shape. And we rolled from there. I’m so proud of our guys.”
Three straight interceptions quickly turned into 20 points in the first half.
An Alex Barnes interception gave his team the ball at its own 18-yard line. Eight players later, Barnes punched it in from 4 yards out to supply the Cougars with a 15-0 lead after an Aidan Kimbrell PAT kick. Barnes (eight carries, 77 yards) scored again on a 22-yard run just before halftime to make it 42-0 and register the 40-point mercy-rule running clock in the second half.
On the very next play from scrimmage after Barnes’ first touchdown, Dustin Hayden picked off an East pass and scooted 40 yards to the house.
Hayden started the game with a 14-yard touchdown pass to Keegan Frandsen and ended it with a 1-yard scoring run to give him a hand in four touchdowns on the night.
A bad snap in the end zone on the Mariners’ next offensive play in the first quarter led to a desperation throw from quarterback Jacob Nelson, and Andrew Mendolia came up with the third pick of the half to give his team prime field position at the 2-yard line. Hayden then crossed the goal line on a quarterback sneak to make it 28-0.
“We couldn’t execute,” East coach B.J. Frazier said. “We had some looks we wanted, but we couldn’t deliver the ball where it needed to be. There were just too many turnovers. Those first 28 points, we feel like we gave a lot of those to them. And with our young kids, it made it tough.”
Any momentum East could have built on senior night was destroyed when Nelson’s nifty 21-yard touchdown run on the team’s first offensive possession was called back thanks to an illegal shift call.
“That would have helped our confidence a lot,” Frazier said. “That first drive, we had some success. Then it’s 28-0 just like that. They had a good game plan. They knew where we were strong, and they took it away from us. They made it hard on our freshman quarterback. They did a great job.”
The Cougars held East to 16 rushing yards and 62 passing.
The Mariners finished fifth in the eight-team conference but ranked ahead of fellow 1A teams Pender and Lejeune to earn the top playoff seed. Those are the only 1A teams East played this year thanks to the split league and a nonconference schedule that included 2A squads West Craven and North Lenoir and 3A teams West Carteret and Swansboro.
“We’ll get prepped for the playoffs now,” Frazier said. “I told the guys we’ll play 1A teams from here on out. We’re all 0-0 now.”
Despite the Mariners’ record, Gurley said his team wasn’t going to take its county rival lightly.
“We knew East would play us tough on senior night at home,” he said. “This is the first team I’ve been around in a long time that hasn’t overlooked teams. It doesn’t matter who we play. We don’t get too hyped up. Sometimes it looks like we’re flat, but the guys just come to play. They just take care of business.”
J.J. Pritchett gave the Cougars their other touchdown in the game, rolling in from 5 yards out in the second quarter.
A game after setting a career high with 177 yards and three touchdowns on seven carries in a 56-18 victory over Pender, Pritchett went for 157 yards on eight carries against East. He had rushed for more than 50 yards just once in the previous nine games, running for 111 yards on nine carries in a 34-13 win over Dixon.
Colton Sullivan broke the 1,000-yard mark in the contest with 45 yards on nine carries.