BOONVILLE — Surry Central made the playoffs, but few expected them to make noise.
While the Golden Eagles fell just short of an improbable first-round upset Friday night, coach Monty Southern’s team gave top-seeded Starmount all it could handle before falling 20-17.
A 75-yard interception return for a touchdown by Starmount junior Jake Barr with 6:55 left helped the Rams ward off the pesky Eagles. Surry Central answered with a touchdown at the 4:17 mark to pull within a field goal, then got the ball back with 1:41 remaining at its own 35.
But the Rams’ defense held its ground, and Israel Murphy’s sack of quarterback Dave Wilmoth on fourth down sealed the narrow victory.
Starmount (10-2) will advance to play Lexington (6-6) in this Friday’s second round, while Surry Central’s season ends at 2-10.
“The kids fought really, really hard,” Southern said moments after huddling with his team following Friday night’s nail-biter. “We thought we had a good game plan and we executed the game plan. We just needed one or two more big plays.”
For Starmount, the mood was subdued after the game. Players, coaches and fans seemed to be breathing a deep sigh of relief at surviving what many thought would be a lopsided first-round contest.
Jim Valvano’s famous “survive and advance” phrase was mentioned several times.
“It was just one of those nights where we didn’t play very well and they (Surry Central) played well,” Starmount coach Scott Johnson said. “I’m not taking anything away from them. It seemed the stars were lined up in their favor until Jake makes a play at the end and runs that interception back.”
Starmount trailed 10-7 at the half, but the momentum seemed to be swinging in the Rams’ favor after Surry Central botched a punt snap midway through the third period.
Starmount took over at the Eagles’ 37, and two plays later senior Blaine Nicholson burst through the middle on a handoff, taking it 42 yards for the go-ahead score. Steven Hemric’s PAT gave Starmount a 14-10 lead with 7:13 left.
But the Rams couldn’t build on their lead, instead giving Surry Central prime field position twice after not moving the ball.
The Eagles blocked a punt in one case, but went backwards after taking over at the Rams‘ 11. That drive ended with a missed field goal. A short punt early in the fourth period gave Central the ball at the Starmount 41.
Instead of kicking on fourth down and seven at the Rams’ 26, Southern opted to go for a first down. That’s when Jake Barr became the game-changer — a familiar role for the three-year starter at quarterback/defensive back.
Central quarterback Dave Wilmoth rolled to his right, looking to complete a pass near the sideline. But Barr stepped in front of the intended receiver, snatched the ball away and weaved his way 75 yards for a touchdown.
Barr, who had two interceptions in the game and now has eight for the season, picked off some big passes during last year’s playoffs as well. He has now scored five different ways this season — rushing, passing, receiving, returning a fumble and returning an interception.
“He just has a nose for the ball,” Johnson said.
But even that momentum-swining sequence didn’t deter Central’s determination to fight until the final whistle. The Eagles came right back and marched 64 yards in six plays to score and pull within 20-17. The drive was aided by two 15-yard personal foul penalties on Starmount.
On the touchdown play, Wilmoth completed a pass to Casey Felts, but Felts fumbled at the 1-yard line. The ball rolled into the end zone, where Blake Stanley fell on it for the score at the 4:17 mark.
Central had problems hanging onto the football all throughout the game but benefitted from fortunate bounces much of the time to keep possession.
“How many times did they lay it on the ground and we can’t get to it,” Johnson said. “We shank a punt and have a punt blocked, stuff we normally don’t do.”
On Surry Central’s final possession, Wilmoth threw three incomplete passes before getting sacked on fourth down.
After the game, Southern told players that they had nothing to hang their heads about. Central had to beat South Stokes on the final night of the regular season just to make the playoffs. They certainly didn’t play the role of first-round fodder as many expect from a 16 seed.
“We really just had a good week of preparation,” Southern said. “We didn’t do anything outside of our normal stuff. The guys did a good job (on defense) of reading their keys and stepping up to make plays and swarming to the ball.
“We had some chances to rally back. It wasn’t for lack of heart and lack of effort.”
Surry Central outgained Starmount 207 yards to 203. Neither team scored in the first quarter. Barr broke the stalemate with a 23-yard touchdown run with 6:28 left in the second quarter.
But the Eagles answered with a Jose Diaz field goal and a 46-yard Felts TD run to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room.
Barr, who had to play running back some after Murphy got banged up, led Starmount’s rushing effort, gaining 81 yards on 13 carries. Nicholson earned 52 yards on five totes. Felts was Central’s leading ground gainer, earning 75 yards on seven carries.
Starmount coaches had the benefit of scouting their next opponent live. Lexington and Trinity didn’t play until Saturday night, postponing their contest for a night because of poor field conditions caused by last week’s heavy rains.
Lexington beat Trinity 40-22. The Rams and Yellow Jackets have never played on the gridiron.
Johnson said he planned to spend very little time focusing on what didn’t click Friday night.
“You’ve got to have a short memory and get ready for Monday,” Johnson said. “We’ll watch film (Saturday) and I’ll get my mind on what we need to do to get better. I wish we could have played with a little more emotion. That frustrates me.”
Surry Central 17
Friday • at Boonville
Surry Central 0 10 0 7 — 17
Starmount 0 7 7 6 — 20
ST — Jake Barr 23 run (Steven Hemric kick), 6:28
SC — Jose Diaz 35 field goal, 5:29
ST — Casey Felts 46 run (Ben Earnest kick), 3:26
ST — Blaine Nicholson 42 run (Hemric kick), 7:13
ST — Jake Barr 75 interception return (kick failed), 6:55
SC — Blake Stanley fumble recovery in end zone (Earnest kick), 4:17
RUSHING: Starmount — Jake Barr 13-81; Blaine Nicholson 5-52; M.J. Bryant 6-27; Israel Murphy 11-26; Fondae McDaniel 3-13; Totals: 38-199. Surry Central — Casey Felts 7-75; Dave Wilmoth 17-52; Alex Wilmoth 3-12; Luke Harris 10-8; Totals: 37-147.
PASSING: Starmount — Jake Barr 1-of-4 for 4 yards. Surry Central — Dave Wilmoth 6-of-22 for 60 yards, 2 INTs. Alex Wilmoth 0-of-1. Totals: 6-of-23 for 60 yards, 2 INTs.
RECEIVING: Starmount — Israel Murphy 1-4. Surry Central — Alex Wilmoth 2-29, Casey Felts 2-18, Shane Johnson 2-13.
NOTES: Starmount’s Israel Murphy crossed the 1,000-yard plateau in rushing for the season. He has carried the ball 141 times for 1,008 yards and 16 TDs this fall.