RONDA — Arguably the greatest game in East Wilkes varsity football history happened Friday night. Just ask the nearly 3,000 people who were at Ebb Tharpe Field.
Junior Carlos Aquino kicked the game-winning 25-yard field goal with no time left as the East Wilkes Cardinals completed the comeback to defeat the Wilkes Central Eagles 24-21. It’s the second comeback win in the past three games for the Cardinals (10-0, 6-0 MVAC) , and earned them the outright Mountain Valley Athletic Conference championship.
“As soon as we got into the red zone, coach told me to get my leg warmed up, and I was like, ‘This is me, this is it right here.’ It was the best moment of my life,” Aquino said.
Aquino’s kick might have been the deciding play, but not many will argue that the overall play of the game came two minutes prior.
Wilkes Central (9-2, 5-2 MVAC) got inside the red zone thanks to the strong running attack of Andrew Bynum. The senior accounted for all three of the Eagles touchdowns, giving them a 21-7 lead at the half. For a while, the Cardinals’ defense couldn’t find a solution for Bynum, who totaled 273 offensive yards. However, as the runner tried to sneak up the middle late in the game, juniors Andrew Elmore and Adam Holbrook stripped the ball, which was then recovered by junior Weston Miller, giving the Cardinals possession deep in their own territory.
“I didn’t really see it, but then next thing I know everybody’s freaking out, so when I looked around, the ball was ours and I looked up and I said, ‘We are going all the way,’” Elmore said.
Having confidence is one thing, but if they were going to execute the comeback, the Cards would need to do so with 1:51 left on the clock. That’s where sophomore quarterback Bryce Vestal, along with the senior leadership of Andrew Nance and Camon Bryan came in. Rolling right on at their own 40-yard line, Vestal found Nance along the sidelines for a 26-yard gain.
“That’s how football’s played, you come out and take swings, we took their best punch, and we gave it right back to them,” Nance said.
On the next play, Vestal found Bryan on a short route, but Bryan gained some extra yards after contact to put the Cardinals inside the 15-yard line, and within field-goal range of Aquino, who wasn’t even there for the opening kickoff. A starter for the soccer team, he was traveling back from a game earlier at Starmount and arrived shortly after the football game had begun.
After killing some clock, Head Coach JK Adkins called timeout with 2.2 remaining, to put Aquino on the field for the attempt. Aquino struck it right down the middle for the game-winner.
Just to get to that moment took quite a second half, and between a 43-yard touchdown run by Deven Couch, followed by Bryan busting through the Wilkes Central defensive line for a touchdown on the next drive to knot it up. Then, between Miller’s fumble recovery, and Joah Logan’s second straight game with an interception in the red zone, they kept the Eagles off the board the entire second half.
“We hadn’t got to 9-0 by sitting on our heels,” Adkins said. “We had a couple of plays that we felt that we had a chance of completing, and luckily we made those plays, and had a timeout in the pocket and ran it down to nothing. We talked to [Aquino] in the spring about kicking, and we knew he had a leg. Good thing we talked him into it.”
It was hard for many of the players to explain how they felt, likely because none of these players have ever been in this situation before. For the seniors, they had only won six games combined in all three seasons prior, and now are one week away from a potential undefeated regular season. Trying to deny that will be West Wilkes (5-5, 3-3 MVAC), who are midpack in the conference trying to secure a playoff spot.
Ryan DeCosta can be reached at 336-258-4052 or via Twitter @rsdecosta.