RANDLEMAN — Lucas Smith smiled brightly, challenging the illumination of the lights at Charles R. Gregory Stadium, which just lit the night for one of the top high school football games of the 2023 season.
Smith and his Eastern Randolph High School teammates were celebrating a third straight Piedmont Athletic Conference championship, a championship that had to be earned over a very talented and previously undefeated Randleman High School squad. And earn it the Wildcats did.
With Smith running the ball, allowing the Wildcats to take huge chunks off the clock, a number of big pass plays and a defense that stiffened halfway through the third quarter, ER posted a 22-21 win in a game that won’t soon be forgotten.
The victory was the ninth straight for the Wildcats (5-0, 9-1) and sets up a first-round state playoff game at home against No. 30 Cherryville. ER will have the No. 3 seed in the West Regional.
Randleman fell for the first time this season and slipped to 4-1 and 9-1. The Tigers, who are seeded sixth for the upcoming state tournament, will also host a first-round game, that coming against No, 27 West Stanly Friday night.
“This is why you love this game,” Smith said moments after he rushed for 97 yards and helped the ER offense take huge chunks off the clock with time-sustaining drives. “This is a great atmosphere, something you dream about.
“Conference champion sounds good, but we want a ring.”
That would mean capturing a state championship, something that no one will dismiss as long as big-time players like quarterback Carter Revell, wideouts Timmy Brower, Rayden West and Nicah Taylor and a defense led by Jani Norwood, Kobe Walker, Will Stalker and Maddox Carson, among others, perform as well as they have.
“Three years in a row, but that’s not the primary goal,” veteran ER coach Burton Cates said, smiling almost as brightly as Smith. “I thought all week this is the way it was going to be like.”
A game that featured a ton of defensive stops and some big plays on offense turned into an all-out defensive battle after ER scored on a 39-yard pass from Carter Revell to Nicah Taylor with 4:12 left in the third quarter to tie the game at 21-21. Freshman Joel Salinas calmly added the extra point for what proved to be the winning margin.
RHS had a couple of more chances to drive, but its final attempt ended with 3:11 left to play in the game when the Tigers punted on fourth-and-2.
“We had two time outs, 3:11 left on the clock,” RHS coach Brian Hughes said. “We live and die by our defense. If we go for it, we’re not exactly running the ball at that point. They were shoving us pretty good up front. Had to make a decision. I made the decision.”
After punting the ball away, Smith, Revel and the offensive line made sure the Tigers never saw the ball again. A run by Smith, a couple of kneel downs by Revell and a last-second pass that ate up the remaining seconds ended the game.
“I’m telling you, we got exactly what we thought we would get,” Hughes said. “They are almost an identical football team to what we are and we knew it would come down to one or two plays and it did. They made a couple of plays on offense and we didn’t on our offense.”
Those plays included a nifty double-pass on the final play of the first quarter as West found a wide-open Taylor for a 35-yard scoring strike as the buzzer sounded. A two-point run by Smith gave ER an 8-7 lead, a lead RHS earned on its first drive of the game, a 58-yard scoring drive culminated by a 15-year run by Edison Hernandez at the 4:12 mark.
Then, both teams scored in the half’s final 35 seconds. First, ER capped a scoring drive with a 22-yard pass from Revel to Brower with 34.2 seconds left for a 15-7 lead. But RHS quarterback John Kirkpatrick scrambled out of trouble on the very final play of the first half and lofted a high, arching pass toward the end zone that Tyshaun Goldston grabbed over a couple of defenders as the Tigers pulled to within 15-14 at the break.
“We came out and gave them that TD in the second half and then settled in,” Cates said. “There was no panic at halftime. They knew where we messed up at. We knew they would get one on us tonight.”
Kirkpatrick found a streaking Amari Ferdna from 58 yards out on the very first drive of the second half for a 21-15 lead, but that would be all the Tigers would muster offensively.
“We felt like at that point, the ball was in our court and we were getting to score two or three times on them and take control, but it didn't work out that way,” Hughes said. “We couldn't make a big play and the momentum shifted after that, which it does when you play a really good team.”
That set up the final scoring play, Revell’s pass to Taylor.
The rest of the game was hard hitting with both defenses shining.
“Every hit was like a car accident,” Smith said. “It’s really fun getting hit like that time and time again and getting up every time. I’m really at a loss for words. That’s a great team. All respect for them.”
All respect for both teams. It was quite a game.