ROCKINGHAM – Wednesday’s Southeastern Middle School Athletic Conference football championship game could not have been scripted much better.
The game featured two undefeated teams, both trying to end long title droughts and make history for their respective programs. One team held a four-point advantage and the other was in the red zone with just seconds left on the clock. Everyone in the stadium was on their feet and tensions were running high on the sidelines. It all came down to one final play.
That is exactly what spectators were treated to on Wednesday when the Rockingham Middle Rockets met the East Hoke Middle Eagles with Richmond Senor High School’s Raider Stadium playing host.
Trailing 20-16 and facing third-and-ten at the Rockingham 32-yard line with time winding down, East Hoke quarterback Mah’Rod Wood completed his first pass of the game to Brian Redmond at the Rocket 10-yard line. The Eagles ran to the line of scrimmage and spiked the ball with two seconds left on the clock.
On the final play of the game, Wood spotted teammate Robert Wright open at the three-yard, but as the ball reached Wright, Rockingham’s Cameron Everette snuck in from behind and knocked the ball away triggering every Rocket to swarm the field in celebration.
“I’m so proud of the guys,” said Rockingham head coach Zach Freeman after the game. “I can’t thank them enough for their hard work. I can’t thank this coaching staff, the school and the community enough for everything they’ve done for us this season.”
The victory marked Rockingham’s (7-0) first title since 2014 and the Rockets’ pair of championships are the only two titles that Richmond County has won since the school system switched from the junior high school format to the current middle school model.
Those who have followed Rockingham this season were not surprised that it came down to a big defensive play to claim the title. The Rockets have outscored their seven opponents this season 200-32 and they have not allowed a single point since their season opening victory over Blenheim – a game they also won by a score of 20-16.
“Our defense stepped up in a big way tonight,” shared Freeman. “They haven’t been scored on in five weeks, so to see them step up and continue to fight after getting scored on tonight is a testament to their level of maturity and how far they have come along this season. We shut them down when we needed to.”
That stingy Rockingham defense had its hands full with the East Hoke offense. In fact, the Eagles finished the night with more offensive yards (East Hoke 184, Rockingham 156) and more first downs (East Hoke 12, Rockingham 4).
For much of the game, Wood set up under center and hid behind the big East Hoke offensive line. His handoffs were smooth, flawless and invisible due to his ability to stay low behind his blockers. This caused the Rockets some issues early on as it forced them to keep all of the Eagles covered setting up a lot of one-on-one scenarios and limiting Rockingham’s ability to swarm.
After the opening kickoff set up East Hoke at its own 21-yard line, Davon Bronson took a handoff from Wood and pushed forward for gain of a dozen. After a pair of carries from Peyton Price added nine more yards, Bronson added three more for another Eagle first down at their own 45-yard line.
The drive stalled there as Rockingham’s Jamarrion Nicholson and Jake Gardner teamed up to bring down an East Hoke ball carrier behind the line of scrimmage and then Cam’ron Coley recorded another tackle-for-loss on the very next play. After a short gain on third down, the Eagles were forced to punt, but the snap on the punt attempt was high forcing the Eagle punter to jump on the ball at the East Hoke 32-yard line.
The excellent field position was not wasted by the Rockets. Rockingham quarterback Damarion Allen opened the drive completing three straight passes to three different receivers. Allen hit Jaden Wall for 2 yards, Josiah Gilbert for 5 yards and then Ty Covington for 14 yards setting up the home team 11 yards away from the goal line.
It appeared as though the momentum would end there as CJ Covington was dropped for a five-yard loss and then the Rockets were tagged with a holding penalty leaving Rockingham facing a second-and-29 from the Eagle 30-yard line.
A 14-yard toss to Ty Covington made it third-and 15 and then Allen found Wall again, this time in the front corner of the end zone for the first points of the game. The two-point conversion attempt was no good, but the Rockets led 6-0 with just 9 seconds remaining in the opening quarter.
East Hoke answered Rockingham’s short scoring drive with one of their own. Price collected the ensuing kickoff and zig-zagged his way down field avoiding several would-be tacklers before being brought down at the Rockingham 35-yard line.
It took just five carries, all by Price and Bronson, to reach pay dirt. After an 11-yard run by Price knotted the game at 6-all, Wood ran in the 2-point conversion attempt putting the visitors ahead 8-6 with 5:04 remaining in the first half.
Rockingham’s next drive started at its own 35-yard line. Ty Covington started the drive with a 4-yard run. Then, Allen dropped back to pass only to find his receiver covered. He ran to his right, dodged a pair of Eagle defenders, reversed field and sprinted down the Eagle sideline for a gain of 31 yards down to the East Hoke 30-yard line.
On the next play, CJ Covington hauled in a quick pass from Allen and ran it 30 yards down the home sideline for six points. Allen tossed it to Coley in the end zone on the 2-point conversion attempt and the Rockets were back ahead 14-8 with 3:31 left until the break.
A holding penalty on the ensuing kickoff return backed East Hoke up to its own 10-yard line. Price, Bronson and Wood combined for 36 yards on the next seven plays resulting in three first downs and putting the Eagles near midfield. However, with the clock now working against them, the Eagles were forced to look to the air and CJ Covington made them pay with a drive-killing interception to send the Rockets into halftime with a 14-8 advantage.
After the break, Rockingham started the third quarter at its own 38-yard line. A sack by East Hoke’s Chris Desantiago and a pair of short yardage plays appeared to stymie the Rockets’ first possession of the second half. The Rockets, who had not needed to punt this entire season, really had no effective means to punt even against a more formidable defense, so found themselves lining up to go for it on fourth-and-eight from their own 40-yard line.
With Rockingham in trouble and the visitors looking to steal the momentum, Allen made another big play. Appearing to be stopped yet again, he somehow found room to squirt through the collection of blockers and defenders in front of him and sprinted for 24 yards moving the chains to the Eagle 36-yard line.
“This was his best game by far,” Freeman said of his quarterback. “There were a few times I was thinking slide or throw it away and the next thing I know he was 20 yards down the field. He stepped up big and made plays when we needed him to.”
After a two-yard run by Ty Covington, Allen duplicated his previous play with another 24-yard run, this time down to the Eagle 10-yard line. On the next play, TJ Watkins pushed his way to the three-yard line and then Allen carried it into the end zone from there for six. The two-point conversion failed, but the Rockets now had a two-possession lead at 20-8 with 3:03 remaining in the third quarter.
Following the ensuing kickoff, East Hoke took over at their own 31-yard line. Price got started with back-to-back runs of 11 and 12 yards. Rockingham was tagged with a facemask penalty moving the Eagles into Rocket territory and La’Markus Craig followed with a 17-yard run. Price closed out the third quarter with a three-yard run and the Eagles were in business at the Rockingham 21-yard line.
East Hoke seemed to have found a chink in Rockingham’s defensive armor, but to start the fourth quarter, the Rockingham defense settled for bending instead of breaking.
After allowing the Eagles to move the ball 48 yards in three minutes on just four plays (plus a penalty) to close out the third quarter, the Rockets forced East Hoke to inch its way to the end zone to start the fourth quarter.
The Eagles did manage to score, but it took them eight plays (all runs) to get the final 20 yards which ate up nearly five minutes off of the clock. The drive was capped by a two-yard run by Price and a two-point conversion run by Bronson to cut the Rocket lead to four at 20-16 with just 3:03 remaining in the game.
From start to finish, the drive lasted exactly eight minutes (3:03 in the third to 3:03 in the fourth). With a two-possession lead, trading eight points for eight minutes almost felt like a win for Rockingham – almost.
An onside kick attempt by East Hoke was pounced on by Coley at the Rocket 48-yard line. After Rockingham moved the ball seven yards in two plays, Bronson, now on defense gave East Hoke the opportunity it needed. On third-and-three, Bronson plowed through the line and took down Watkins almost instantly after being handed the ball by Allen for a loss of four yards.
Rockingham was then hit with a false start penalty setting up a fourth-and-13 and again, without the ability to punt, the Rockets lined up to convert even though they were at their own 46-yard line.
The disastrous possession continued as the snap on the fourth-down play was mishandled and even though Allen recovered, he was dropped for a 14-yard loss giving East Hoke the ball just 32 yards away from the goal line with 1:15 remaining.
Price ran for six yards on the Eagles first play. Coley erased Price’s gain on the next play when he sacked Wood for a six-yard loss. That set up the scene for the final two plays, Redman’s grab at the 10-yard line followed by Everette’s pass break-up for the win.
Allen finished the night perfect in the air completing all seven of his pass attempts to four different receivers for 82 yards and a touchdown. He also completed an eighth pass on a two-point conversion attempt and had six carries for 75 yards and a touchdown.
“He put the team on his back tonight, Freeman shared. “He has great leadership and he’s only a seventh grader. We get him back next year. That’s huge for us.”
CJ Covington came into the game as the Rockingham’s leading rusher, but switched roles from playmaker to target in the championship game. He was limited to just two carries for a loss of six yards in the game, but was often able to draw the attention of multiple Eagle defenders and provided some great blocks. He only had one reception in the game but it was for 30 yards and a touchdown. He also had an interception on defense.
Wall had two catches for 17 yards and a touchdown, Ty Covington had three receptions for 30 yards, as well as four carries for two yards, Watkins had two carries for three yards, and Gilbert added a catch for five yards.
Price led the game in rushing with 16 carries for 111 yards and a touchdown for East Hoke (5-1). He also completed a one-yard pass. Bronson ran the ball seven times for 34 yards, and Craig had one carry for 17 yards. Wood had six carries for five yards and a touchdown and was 1-for-4 passing for 22 yards and an interception. Redman had a single reception for 22 yards.
“This was the first time that I feel like we’ve played a complete game all season,” Freeman concluded. “We needed to have a big team effort tonight and needed to play four complete quarters and did both. They are going to take their Legacy to Richmond and I can’t wait to see what they accomplish.”