By Rob Craig
Published in Sports on November 12, 2006 2:02 AM
SNOW HILL -- Senior quarterback Cameron Shelton fell to his knees, put his head in his hands and was consoled by his family and friends.
The image of Shelton wasn't exclusive to him, the same look was on the face every Greene Central player.
Frustration, disappointment and sadness.
The Rams had come within a few plays of knocking off the defending state champion in the first round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 2-A playoffs on Friday night at the James K. Fulghum Athletic Complex. Now though, the realty had set in of what had just occurred.
Nick Cooper's second touchdown of the game gave the Clinton Dark Horses an 18-14 lead with 4:52 left in the fourth quarter.
Just prior to the touchdown run, Reggie Johnson had made a hard tackle in the backfield of Cooper, leaving Clinton with a long third-and-11 from the Rams' 21-yard line.
As Johnson jumped up, he walked away and crossed his arms back and forth -- drawing a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Cooper would score two plays later.
"You have to let the kids play the game," Greene Central head coach Jim Bob Bryant said. "That play right there changed the outcome of the game. I'm not saying it's the referees fault we lost the game ... but that penalty sure didn't help."
Greene Central had two different chances to mount a comeback, but would fail both times.
On their final possession, quarterback Cameron Shelton completed a swing pass to J.J. Thompson for a 9-yard gain. Following the play though, coach Bryant -- who thought Thompson was hit out of bounds -- was flagged for a coaching box infraction, backing the Rams up to their own 42-yard line.
After a sack, the senior's final pass of his career was intercepted by defensive back Brian Williams, his second pick of the game.
"A couple of penalties really hurt us down the stretch, " Bryant said. "But you can't put yourself in a position where the referees can change the outcome of the game."
The game was setting up for a dramatic finish from the start.
Both teams scored early with the Dark Horses striking first on Cooper's first touchdown run of the game.
Robert Shaw's extra point hit the upright, leaving the score 6-0 Clinton in the first quarter.
Cooper was the workhorse for the Dark Horses, running 41 times for 227 yards and two scores.
"Nick Cooper is a heck of a back," said Bryant. "I don't know if we've faced a better one this season."
Greene Central came back on their third possession, a 10-play drive, culminating on a 30-yard touchdown pass from Shelton to Curtis Braswell. On the play, Braswell leaped in between two Dark Horse defenders to come down with the ball and make it 7-6, following Abel Real's extra point.
Late in the second quarter, it looked as if Clinton would take the lead going into the locker room when they drove inside the Rams' 10-yard line.
The Greene Central defense would step up and stop Cooper on four straight runs from inside the 6-yard line to keep the score 7-6 at the half. On fourth down, the ball sat just inches from the Greene Central end zone. Cooper took the handoff and tried to leap over the pile, but was stuffed by a host of Rams.
"Four downs inside the 10 and our defense kept them out," said Bryant. "That gave us a real high going in at halftime."
Defensively for the Rams, Brandon Sutton finished with 12 tackles, including two for a loss. Reggie Sanders added nine stops, and Johnson had seven tackles in the game. Both had one tackle for a loss.
In the second half, Clinton went to the air to make it 12-7 on a 30-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Thomas Pope to Williams.
The play-action pass caught the Rams defense off guard.
"We hadn't thrown a ball in three games and, all of a sudden, we throw a couple play-action passes," Clinton head coach Steve Mallar said.
The Greene Central offense responded and put together an 11-play drive, ending when Shelton dove into the end zone from a yard out to give the Rams the 14-12 lead with 10:25 to play.
"He's a great player," Bryant said of Shelton. "We're going to miss him. He made a couple of crucial plays down the stretch."
Mallar was impressed with the fight of the Rams.
"They've got a good football team, there's no question about it," said Mallar. "We knew we had to come out and play our 'A' game."
The Dark Horses' "A" game was undoubtedly riding Cooper's back, who carried Clinton to victory and ended the careers of the Rams seniors.
Coach Bryant, with tears in his eyes, spoke glowingly of his senior class.
"These seniors are the reason this program is where it is now," he said. "I love every one of them."
For Greene Central, Shelton finished the evening 9 of 20 for 108 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions. On the ground, senior J.J. Thompson rushed 14 times for 64 yards. Shelton finished the 2006 season with 1,773 passing yards and 17 touchdowns. Thompson ended up with 1,035 rushing yards and 12 TDs.
"We played hard every snap, against the defending state champions, and left everything on the field," said Thompson. "It hurts from the heart."
With the victory, Clinton improves to 7-5 on the season and will now play No. 2-seeded East Duplin in the second round of the NCHSAA State 2-A Football playoffs.
Greene Central's season comes to an end at 9-3.
"We had our chances in this game, but they made the plays down the stretch," Bryant said.
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