It seemed improbable in late October that the East Forsyth Eagles would defend their 4-A State Football Championship. After all, their best running back was out for the season with a broken arm, their best receiver had torn his ACL, several other key players were nursing injuries, and the Eagles had just dropped two of their last three games. Despite this discouraging situation, the East Forsyth coaching staff and players refused to stop believing they could defend their title. And on Saturday afternoon in Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, the Eagles accomplished their goal of winning back-to-back state championships by edging Cardinal Gibbons 24-21 in a heart-stopping game.
The final 2:30 of the game had the fans of both teams on their feet, as Cardinal Gibbons looked poised to claim a come-from-behind victory. East had possession of the football on its own 49-yard line following the recovery of a Gibbons’ on-side kick attempt. Facing a 3rd-and-11, East quarterback Ty Lyles threw a pass downfield that was intercepted by the Crusaders’ Malcolm Reed at the Cardinal Gibbons’ 40-yard line. Reed returned the interception to the Eagle 33-yard line where he was forced out-of-bounds. The clock showed 2:25 remaining in the game, and it was the Cardinal Gibbons offense vs. the East Forsyth defense for the victory. Two rushing attempts earned the Crusaders a first down at the East 23, but now less than two minutes remained in the game. Trying to surprise the Eagle defense, Gibbons tried another run by halfback Jack Grazen. However, he was stopped for a yard loss and now the Crusaders were forced to throw the ball. On second down, Javon Cobb and Isaiah Shepherd sacked quarterback Andrew Harvey, who was the Cardinal Gibbons Offensive Player of the Game, for a loss of 7 yards. Harvey again faced heavy pressure on third down before being thrown for an 8-yard loss in the grasp of Torrian Jackson. Facing a 4th-and-26 from the East 39, Harvey threw a pass to his receiver in the end zone that was broken up by Javon McAllister. With Cardinal Gibbons out of time outs, the Eagles ran out the remaining 1:14 to claim their championship.
The entire game was extremely competitive with no team having a lead larger than the 10-point margin the Eagles enjoyed after Andrew Conrad’s 31-yard field goal with 4:33 left in the third quarter. On their next possessions, both teams squandered excellent scoring opportunities. Finding themselves down by 10, the Crusaders took the ensuing kickoff and drove to the East 13 where they had a 1st-and 10. After two rushing attempts, Gibbons faced a 3rd-and-7 from the 10. An errant snap over the quarterback’s head left the Crusaders with a 4th-and-22, and Harvey’s 4th down pass was incomplete ending the threat.
Now it was the Eagles’ turn with the ball knowing that a score would probably put the game out of reach. Taking possession at its 25-yard line, East used a mixture of passes and runs to move downfield and earn a first down at the Gibbons’ 17-yard line. A holding penalty on third down moved the ball back to the 25-yard line where the Eagles faced a 3rd-and-18. Lyles pass attempt to pick up the first down was intercepted by Malcolm Reed of the Crusaders at the goal line for a touchback, and the margin remained at 10.
Cardinal Gibbons started at its own 20-yard line following the interception and quickly moved down the field on the back of Harvey’s passing. The deficit was cut to 3 points after a 7-yard touchdown pass from Harvey to Cameron Noble. On the succeeding East Forsyth possession, Lyles’ pass was picked off by Reed, his second of the 4th quarter, setting the stage for the final defensive stand by the Eagles.
After the first possession of the game by Cardinal Gibbons, few fans believed that 24 points would be enough to win the game. The Crusaders took the opening kickoff and covered 65 yards in eight plays to take a quick 7-0 lead. The key play in the drive was a 39-yard pass play from Harvey to wide out Jacob Gill. The same two players were responsible for the scoring play as they connected on a 9-yard strike.
East struck back and tied the score at 7 near the end of the first quarter on a 59-yard pass play from Lyles to wide receiver Jamison Warren, who was recognized as East Forsyth’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player in the game. Warren took the short toss from Lyles and eluded several Crusader defenders on his way to the score. Conrad’s PAT was good.
Cardinal Gibbons responded immediately after taking possession at its own 33-yard line. Harvey found Grazen on a third-and-long for 18 yards moving the ball to the East 40. On the next play, Cameron Noble was on the end of a 40-yard touchdown completion to put Gibbons up 14-7 early in the 2nd quarter.
East Forsyth was unable to pick up a first down and punted to the Crusaders who began at their own 27-yard line. After Cardinal Gibbons advanced across mid-field, Eagle linebacker Elijah Thomas stepped in front of a Harvey pass, and his interception gave East possession at the Eagle 43. On the second play following the turnover, the Eagle tandem of Lyles and Warren connected on their second long touchdown strike of the half, this one a 56-yard play. Conrad was successful on the PAT, and the score was knotted at 14 with 6:01 remaining in the first half.
Ty Lyles, who was named MVP of the Championship Game for the second consecutive year, explained his connection with Warren following the game. He stated, “Me and Jamison were ready for the game. And he just found a way to get open. After that I just had to get him the ball and after that he just gets in the end zone-touchdown.”
After tying the score, it took only 20 seconds for the Eagles to score again and take their first lead of the game. Following an unnecessary roughness call against Cardinal Gibbons on the kickoff, the ball was placed on their 14-yard line. Grazen carried the ball on the first play for the Crusaders. He was hit hard by East’s Isaiah Crowell near the 20-yard line, and the ball squirted out. The free ball was picked off the turf by the Eagles’ Jordan Timmons who sprinted into the end zone to give the defending champions a 21-14 lead. Neither team scored again before halftime, although the Crusaders were unsuccessful on a 34-yard field goal attempt as time expired.
Timmons was voted the Most Outstanding Defensive Player for East Forsyth in the game and was feeling great after the win. He commented, “It feels amazing.” On his touchdown recovery he simply said, “I just saw the ball, I picked it up and ran as fast as I could. That is all I did.”
For the game, East Forsyth had 337 total yards-166 rushing and 171 passing. Cardinal Gibbons was credited with 328 total yards with only 38 rushing, but 290 through the air. Ty Lyles was 10-of-16 passing with 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. Andrew Harvey completed 19-of-33 passes with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. East Forsyth lost no fumbles while Cardinal Gibbons had the costly fumble that East returned for a touchdown.
Head Coach Todd Willert, architect of the Eagles’ back-to-back championships, was complimentary of his defense following the game. He said the defense was “bringing the wood”. He also explained that he kept challenging his senior class this season telling them they were no better than a 9-5 team. He laughed and said that he guesses “he is going to have to eat some crow now, but I was just trying to motivate them.”
With the injuries and other challenges facing the team, the season has been a real grind for the coaches and players. Willert was quick to say how proud he was of his coaches, his administration and his players for their efforts throughout the season.
With the final victory, East ended the season with a 6-game winning streak and a 13-2 record. And although the Eagles will lose a number of talented seniors who played on back-to-back state championship teams, there are many underclassmen, especially at the skilled positions, who will return to seek a 3 peat next season. With the confidence gained from these past two state championships, the East Forsyth Eagles will definitely be a force again in 2020.