12/10/06 — State football 1-AA finals: No. 2 Tigers caged

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State football 1-AA finals: No. 2 Tigers caged

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on December 10, 2006 2:01 AM

CHAPEL HILL -- Benji Brown almost seemed reluctant to answer the question.

Could Brown compare James Kenan to its archrival Wallace-Rose Hill, the team Thomasville beat in the state finals each of the past two seasons?

Brown sighed.

"We thought this was a different animal coming into this game and we weren't wrong about that," he said. "Both programs have done an excellent job. We felt the Wallace-Rose Hill kids were probably, overall, quicker than this team and a little more explosive on offense.

"This animal we had to hunt tonight was a very physical football team and provided different challenges for us."

Despite being out-sized at certain positions, the Bulldogs caged the beast.

Thomasville held James Kenan to zero first downs through three-plus quarters and prevailed 13-7 in the N.C. High School Athletic Association Class 1-AA (large-school) state title game Saturday evening. Ranked No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll, the Bulldogs (16-0) seized their third consecutive championship and extended their unbeaten streak to 37 games.

The Tigers, ranked No. 2 in the AP poll, finished 15-1 overall.

"Thomasville's defense is outstanding," said James Kenan coach Ken Avent Jr. "We've had our times (of struggling) on offense all year long and against a defense like that, it's tough and we knew it would be.

"They've got a lot of good players and had a good scheme. They just put us in a hole a bunch (of times)."

The Bulldogs yielded just 106 yards of total offense and finally surrendered a first down with eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter. James Kenan ran just 13 offensive plays in the opening half and held the ball nearly seven minutes compared to almost 17 for Thomasville.

Through three quarters, the Tigers barely eclipsed the 30-yard mark for total offense. It was the lowest-scoring and lowest offensive output of the season by James Kenan, which was making its first appearance in the state finals since 1960.

"Obviously, it was a great effort on our defensive part," said Brown. "That's where we hang our hat. We put our most-experienced coaches there and our best players overall on that side of the ball. Those guys really jelled and played well all year.

"The fact they only got 13 plays (in the first half) said our offense was doing something with the ball, too."

Thomasville moved the football with regularity throughout the opening half behind senior running back Quan Warley, who piled up 125 yards at the break and finished with 216 overall on 46 carries. But the Bulldogs came up empty handed on three red-zone possessions. Five penalties, which surprised and frustrated Brown, prevented the two-time defending state champions from breaking the scoreless deadlock.

Warley wasn't worried.

"It wasn't really frustrating," said 5-foot-11, 185-pounder, who earned MVP honors for the second straight year. "We anticipated it being really close like that. Because of our willingness to stick together throughout the game, I knew we would have it at the end."

Quarterback E.J. Abrams-Ward provided the Bulldogs' first touchdown.

Facing a fourth-and-4 at the James Kenan 27-yard line, Abrams-Ward took the handoff and faked to Warley. Abrams-Ward reversed his field and rambled down the right sideline toward the end zone. It was Abrams-Ward's fifth rushing touchdown of the season.

"That was a designed play," said Abrams-Ward. "I just followed my blockers, read my cuts and the end zone was just there. It really wasn't that big of a relief (to score) knowing the type of team we were playing, but it was a little bit of more comfort.

"We know we needed more security."

Warley collected an insurance touchdown with 8 minutes remaining in regulation. His 1-yard plunge boosted the Bulldogs' advantage to 13-0.

James Kenan responded with a nine-play, 73-yard scoring drive. The Tigers recorded back-to-back first downs and moved inside Thomasville territory for the first time all evening. On a 4th-and-10 play, quarterback Sean Jones threw a lateral to Alex Monk near the Bulldog sideline.

Monk tossed a perfect touchdown strike, which covered 48 yards, to a wide-open Brandon Satchell.

"We were kind of grasping at straws at that point," said Avent Jr. "We pulled it out and it worked."

Linebacker Josh Hicks, tabbed the Tigers' defensive MVP of the game, made three consecutive stops on the Bulldogs' next possession. However, defensive back Bud Ray intercepted Jones and Thomasville ran out the clock.

The Bulldogs seized their fifth state championship in school history and denied James Kenan's bid to become Duplin County's first state champion since Wallace-Rose Hill captured the 2-A title in 1994.

"We had some momentum there," said Avent Jr. "If we could have done anything with the ball, you never know what could have happened there. Give credit to Thomasville for doing a good job of stopping us when we put a little pressure on them."