OCEAN — It was closer than expected, but Croatan got the win it needed on Friday.
After two lightning delays and a little rain, the Cougars defeated Richlands 14-12 on their homecoming night. The win lifted them to 3-4 overall and 1-1 in the 3A Coastal Conference.
After losing to White Oak 36-20 in the conference opener, head coach Andrew Gurley knows every game for the rest of the regular season holds deep playoff implications.
“I told them our playoffs start tonight,” Gurley said. “We have to win out, that’s our goal. It’s good to get the first one in.”
Croatan looked like it might have the game in hand in the fourth quarter. The Cougars took 7:18 off the clock on a drive finished by a 1-yard quarterback sneak from Quincy Doneghy.
A failed run for the two-point conversion gave the Wildcats an opening with the score 14-6, and they took it with an eight-play, 70-yard drive that resulted in an 18-yard touchdown throw from Owen Simco to Jeremiah Lovejoy. Richlands almost scored on a 41-yard run from Brennan Baker, but the Cougars’ Luke Reardon made the touchdown-saving tackle.
Lovejoy’s touchdown came with 1:48 on the clock, but the ensuing two-point pass attempt from Simco didn’t hit its mark. The Wildcats kicked the ball off and Croatan got one more possession with Richlands only holding one timeout.
There was too much time left on the clock for Croatan to simply kneel the game away, but they kneeled it anyway until a delay of game penalty on fourth down set up a punt with 13 seconds on the clock.
Instead of kicking it away, though, a direct snap went to Alex Barnes who rumbled 42 yards down the field to convert for the first down and tick the last seconds of the game away. Barnes finished the game with 92 yards on 11 carries.
“I’m sure a lot of people thought we were crazy,” Gurley said. “We knew we weren’t going to be able to run out the clock by taking a knee. But Quincy is banged up, and who knows if we would have gotten the first down? So, we waited, took the delay of game and then took our chance.”
He added, “There was no way we were going to punt. They weren’t ready for it, and credit to Alex for booking it down the field.”
The final score was closer than either team expected with Richlands coming into the game without a win.
Wildcats head coach Pat Byrd was proud of the effort his team put forth. The two-point loss was his team’s closest of the season.
“I knew these kids had this in them,” Byrd said. “They haven’t had the belief in themselves, but in the second half, it clicked. They started believing and doing the things they’ve been coached to do. That’s the corner we’ve been looking for. Now it’s time to take that belief, grow and get ready for West Carteret for senior night.”
Croatan has faced its own share of adversity, particularly with injuries. Coming into the Richlands game, the Cougars were missing five starters, including quarterbacks Evan King and Caden Barnett and defenders Sam Hoy, Jacob Graybil and Wylie Fenton.
“Hopefully we’ll get some of those guys next week,” Gurley said. “We have a next man up mentality right now, but it’s hard to say that when you only have 30 players.”
Their first- and second-string quarterbacks already sidelined, third-stringer Easton Taylor, a freshman, got the start under center. Taylor rushed for 13 yards and completed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Reardon before breaking his collar bone in the second quarter.
“I hate it for him,” Gurley said. “He has a bright future, though. He’ll be back.”
The injury came right before a bolt of lightning lit up the sky over the field and prompted a 30-minute delay. The game also started 20 minutes late due to another lightning delay. Taylor left the field with his teammates and returned later with a sling.
Doneghy stepped in for Taylor and finished the game with 31 rushing yards and a 15-yard pass to Brayden Stephens. The completion on third down kept the offense’s final scoring drive alive.
“I thought he did a great job coming in tonight in a pinch,” Gurley said. “He was cool, calm and collected. He got the same snaps in practice that Easton got, so we were kind of prepared for the worst.”
Later, in the fourth quarter, Doneghy was briefly injured when Richlands’ Nasir Williams plowed into him on an 11-yard gain.
“He put his body on the line,” Gurley said. “That’s a touchdown if he doesn’t make that tackle.”
There were a handful of touchdown-saving tackles from the Cougars in the win. Trevor Hamrick had one on the kickoff to open the second half. Simco returned the kick 35 yards and looked cleared for the score before Hamrick wrapped him up.
On a punt later in the quarter, Stephens stopped Simco after a 48-yard return to prevent a touchdown. Stephens also had a solid night on offense with seven carries for 44 yards.
For Richlands, Baker was the top ballcarrier with 53 yards, while Williams finished with 32. Both teams only had two pass completions. There were four fumbles in the game, with only one by the Wildcats recovered by the defense.
“We’ve been averaging five turnovers a ball game, and we didn’t do that tonight,” Byrd said. “If we don’t put the ball on the ground, we have a chance to win ball games.”
Croatan will hit the road next week with a visit to Swansboro (2-3 overall).
Richlands will host West (3-2) on Friday. The Patriots are slated to host White Oak for homecoming on Monday in a postponed game from Friday.
Here are results of the game:
Richlands...................................... 0 0 6 6 - 12
Croatan........................................ 8 0 0 6 - 14
5 First Downs 7
26-117 Rushes-yards 31-180
3-6-0 Passing 2-5-0
54 Passing yards 23
171 Total yards 203
3-1 Fumbles-lost 1-0
1-41 Punts 4-32
5-25 Penalties-yards 4-23
C – Reardon 8 pass from Taylor (Stephens run), 5:11, 1st.
R – Williams 6 run (Run failed), 1:09, 3rd.
C – Doneghy 1 run (Run failed), 5:51, 4th.
R – Lovejoy 18 pass from Simco (Pass failed), 1:48, 4th.
RUSHING: Richlands – Baker 4-53, Williams 5-32, Sydes 8-17, Simco 7-13, Hall 2-2; Croatan – Barnes 11-92, Stephens 7-44, Doneghy 9-31, Taylor 4-13.
PASSING: Richlands – Sydes 2-4-0-36, Simco 1-2-0-18; Croatan – Doneghy 1-3-0-15, Taylor 1-2-0-8.
RECEIVING: Richlands – Polingo 2-41, Lovejoy 1-18; Croatan – Stephens 1-15, Reardon 1-8.