East 1-AA Champs: James Kenan headed to state finals
By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on December 3, 2006 2:02 AM
WARSAW -- Jamian Smith knows about the lore surrounding the James Kenan football program. He's had a long list of cousins wear the black and gold and succeed on various levels, but none have played for a state championship.
Smith's fourth-quarter interception and a critical fourth-down offsides penalty preserved the Tigers' come-from-behind, 17-14 victory over East Bladen on Friday evening. Unbeaten and top-seeded James Kenan seized the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 1-AA (large-school) eastern championship -- the program's third in school history -- before some 6,000 fans at Bill Taylor Field.
The Tigers collected their school-record 15th win and oppose top-ranked Thomasville for the state title next Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at Kenan Memorial Stadium on the UNC Chapel Hill campus.
"We've been waiting for this forever," said Smith.
And it appeared the Tigers would wait another season.
East Bladen, ranked No. 5 in the final Associated Press 1-A poll, seized a two-touchdown advantage in the opening half. The Eagles executed well on short-yardage plays and bothered the Tigers with their speed, especially when they bounced outside toward the sidelines.
Leumichael Smith broke loose for a 13-yard touchdown run on East Bladen's first possession. Damiano Whittington fired a 16-yard scoring strike to Anthony Autry late in the second quarter.
The Eagles piled up 130 yards of total offense on four possessions.
"Some things we weren't doing defensively at the beginning had a lot to do with them," said James Kenan defensive coordinator John Avent said. "We had a couple of missed tackles and because of their speed, we got ourselves in some bad positions at times."
East Bladen's defense held James Kenan to just 80 yards of total offense on its first four possessions. The Eagles stopped the Tigers twice inside the red zone, but couldn't complete the first-half shutout.
Stedman Mathis put James Kenan on the board with an electrifying 78-yard touchdown run just before halftime that woke up a partisan Tiger crowd and sent a rumble through the crowd that overflowed behind each end zone. Mathis finished with a playoff-high 211 yards on 20 carries.
"We made some mistakes the first half and we talked about we knew it would be a tough game, but we can't get down when we get down (on the scoreboard)," said Kenan head coach Ken Avent Jr. "We figured they'd probably score again, and we'd have to come back some more."
But Kenan's defense kept the Eagles grounded in the second half.
The Tigers yielded four first downs and surrendered just 30 yards of total offense. East Bladen ran five offensive plays in the third quarter and 19 total in the second half.
The Eagles finished 0-for-3 on third-down conversions.
"They've got a great team and a lot of speed," said Avent. "We were able to make some adjustments at halftime, and make a few plays here and there. We just kept playing and didn't quit."
James Kenan closed the gap to 14-9 on Acin Delcid's 24-yard field goal with just over nine minutes remaining in regulation.
A bad snap and illegal pass pushed East Bladen back to its 21-yard line on its next possession. Whittington managed a 21-yard punt into a blustery wind and the Tigers had great field position at the Eagles' 42-yard line.
But East Bladen aggressively attacked and pressured the Kenan offense into misfiring on three consecutive plays. Linebacker Mitchell Johnson and defensive end Jerry Campbell combined for two hits behind the line of scrimmage, which resulted in a 12-yard loss.
The Tigers punted.
"Our defense all year has bent, but not broken," said East Bladen coach Lenon Fisher. "I knew we were getting tired and we needed to make something happen ... give ourselves a break.
"It just didn't work out."
Smith picked off the first of two Whittington passes three plays later and returned it to the East Bladen 4-yard line.
"They like to go deep on first or second down, and we just looked for it," said Smith. "He led him too far to the outside."
Brandon Satchell plowed his way over from the 2-yard line two plays later to give the Tigers a 15-14 lead. Jayvon Devane added the two-point conversion to make it 17-14.
East Bladen fumbled the ensuing kickoff, but James Kenan returned the favor on the next play. Whittington completed three short passes to put the Eagles inside Tiger territory.
Whittington rolled out and threw a pass to Autry toward the Kenan sideline. Smith stepped in front of Autry, picked off the pass and got knocked out of bounds at the 12-yard line. It was Smith's fourth interception of the playoffs.
"It was a hitch and go, and I saw it when he (Autry) bolted," said Smith. "The quarterback never pumped fake, so I knew what it was. On that one, he led him to the outside, too."
Three plays netted nine-plus yards and left James Kenan with a fourth-and-inches between its 21- and 22-yard lines. Fisher burned a timeout and reminded his players not to jump offsides, since he figured that was the Tigers' strategy.
But an Eagle tackle jumped offsides on Jones' snap count and Kenan ran out the clock after officials assessed the five-yard penalty.
"We were going to try to draw them offsides, then call timeout and talk about it again to see what would happen," said Avent Jr. "They jumped, and that worked out best for us."
James Kenan extended Duplin County's streak of regional championships to three. Archrival Wallace-Rose Hill won back-to-back eastern titles in 2004 and 2005, but lost to Thomasville on each occasion in the state finals.
The Tigers clinched their first state championship berth since 1960.
"It's a win for these guys and it's all about them," said Avent Jr. "They've done everything we've asked and that's why we are where we're at right now."
Notes: Duplin County teams are 7-11 in regional finals since 1972. ... James Kenan's defense -- LB Alex Flores with seven tackles, seven assists; T Keon Wilson with seven tackles, six assists; LB Akeem Faison with six tackles, eight assists; lineman Jermaine Young with three tackles, six assists; DB Kordarious Brown with five tackles, one assist. ... Brothers Ken Jr. and John Avent are a combined 1-2 in regional finals. ... Ken Jr.'s North Johnston team lost to W-RH in 2005, while John led North Duplin to the 2003 east final.
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