Cutting upfield

Croatan’s J.J. Pritchett cuts upfield with the football Friday for one of his three rushing touchdowns in the 56-18 win over Pender. The senior rushed for 174 yards on seven carries. (Zack Nally photo)

OCEAN — It took 11 touchdowns to decide a chilly 1A/2A Coastal 8 Conference clash between Croatan and visiting Pender on Friday.

A whopping 769 total yards of offense was left on the field in the 56-18 victory for the Cougars (8-2 overall). The win moved them to 5-1 in league play and closer to matching a program-best 9-2 regular season finish.

This coming Friday, the Cougars will take on East Carteret (3-7 overall, 3-3 conference) in Beaufort to end the regular season. Second place is the best they can probably hope for after losing to Southwest Onslow 28-6 on Sept. 20.

Croatan is currently tied with Richlands for second place in the conference, but the Wildcats host Southwest Onslow (6-0) on Friday.  

Croatan’s win over Pender (1-9 overall, 1-5 conference) also came on senior night when Croatan honored its eight outgoing upperclassmen.

“It’s nice to win on senior night for those guys,” Croatan coach Andrew Gurley said. “I hope those guys cherish the moments and the memories.”

The seniors are on track to cap the best two-year run in program history. Winners of 14 of their last 18 games, the Cougars finished last year 6-6 overall but also earned the program’s first-ever home playoff game and reached the second round for just the second time.

Pender came in as the 10th-worst team in the 1A classification, according to MaxPreps.com, but the Patriots were still effective offensively with 279 total yards, all on the ground. Jadon Lee was the leading rusher for the visitors with 33 carries for 217 yards.

“We knew coming in they had a good running back and their offensive line was big,” Gurley said. “We saw they moved the ball against Southwest Onslow too. But we felt pretty confident in our offense to mitigate some of that. Our goal was to score every time we touched the ball, and we came pretty close.”

The Cougars scored on their first five possessions and finished the night with a season-high 479 rushing yards. J.J. Pritchett, Colton Sullivan and Alex Barnes combined for an eye-popping 419 of those yards on just 34 carries.

The group’s 12.3-yard per carry average was boosted by Pritchett’s team-high 174 yards on seven carries (24.8 average). The senior running back scored three touchdowns, including two on 57-yard runs. He came into the game with 309 yards and four scores.

“He’s gotten better each week,” Gurley said. “He’s showing the pieces that he needs. He played behind Lewis (Reddick) and David (Wallis) last year and then battled some injuries. This is the healthiest he’s been, and we’re seeing the payoff.”

Sullivan crossed the goal line first, scoring with 7:34 left in the first period for the first of three touchdowns for the junior. After forcing a second straight Pender punt, Pritchett made it a two-score game with a 57-yard burst up the middle on second down.

To that point, the visitors had failed to find a decent hole through Croatan’s run defense, but two opened up on their third possession of the night. Quarterback Antonio Bea found one for 42 yards for a fresh set of downs on the Croatan 39-yard line, and Lee found another on a 32-yard run to set up first-and-goal. The Cougars forced a fourth-and-goal, but Bea found the edge on a 5-yard run to the end zone. The signal-caller finished the night with 62 rushing yards on 12 carries and went 0-for-3 in the pocket.

Bea’s touchdown triggered a run of five combined touchdowns over the final nine minutes of the first half. Sullivan gutted the Patriots’ defense for a 61-yard touchdown run, followed by a Lee score from 60 yards out to make it a 21-12 game.

Croatan answered again three minutes later with a 2-yard run from Barnes who started the drive with a 23-yard scamper. Following a Pender punt, Pritchett was off to the races a second time for a 57-yard score with 1:19 left in the second quarter.

The Cougars hit their first offensive roadblock in the second half, marching 46 yards on eight plays before turning the ball over on downs. Pender was unable to capitalize, however, with a fumble opening the door for a 3-yard touchdown from Pritchett.

The Patriots found the end zone a final time with 2:10 left in the third quarter, on a 4-yard run from Lee.

A 32-yard touchdown run from Sullivan in the fourth quarter led to a personnel change for Croatan, with many jayvee and younger varsity players getting a crack at varsity action. The second unit responded with a 12-play drive, culminating in a 10-yard, TD run from Braden Stephens. Quincy Doneghy had 11 yards on two carries. The strong play from the jayvee stand-ins and the jayvee team’s 6-2 record has Gurley excited for the future.

“This year, the varsity and the jayvee team combined are 14-4,” he said. “We’re sad to see our seniors go, but the future is bright. We want to keep this feeling going. It’s easy to relax and take your foot off the gas, but I don’t want that.”

The Cougars only completed one pass in the game, an 11-yard strike from Dustin Hayden to Zach Hoy that came a hair away from crossing the goal line. Hayden also had 32 rushing yards on seven carries.

On defense, Dakota Gray had seven tackles, including three for a loss. Cameron Barnett had 2.5 tackles for a loss, and Connor McLeod tallied a team-high 9.5 tackles with two for a loss. Paul Skinner had seven tackle assists and Hoy 1.5 tackles for a loss.

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