Rams capture fourth straight conference title
The most-hyped game of the season in the Mountain Valley 1A/2A Conference certainly lived up to its billing.
In the end, the defending conference champions extended their reign one more year, while the upstart challengers suffered their first loss of the season.
Starmount’s Chaston Martin scored on a 19-yard run with 46 seconds left, and the Rams held off one last Wilkes Central charge for a 24-17 triumph on a chilly, damp Friday night in Boonville. The Eagles had led 17-6 in the second quarter — and 17-9 at the break — but couldn’t muster any points in the second half.
On its final drive after Martin’s touchdown, Wilkes Central moved from its 37 to the Starmount 40. Austin McConnell completed one last pass as time expired for about 15 yards, but Jordan Carlton was tackled well short of the end zone, the Eagles’ attempts at a multi-lateral play snuffed out along the far sidelines.
The Rams won their fourth consecutive MVAC crown and extended a conference winning streak to 33 straight games, dating back to October 2007.
“This group has the heart of a champion,” said Rams coach Scott Johnson, who has been in charge during all four recent conference title runs. “They believe in themselves and they believe in each other. Their motto all year has been close the fist, which means stay tight and let’s keep fighting and that’s what they do.”
For awhile, the Rams struggled to close their hands around the wet pigskin. Starmount fumbled the ball away twice deep in its own territory in the first quarter. The first giveaway came on the Rams’ opening offensive snap, giving Wilkes Central a golden opportunity at the Starmount 8.
But the Rams’ defense stiffened, and Wilkes Central had to settle for a 22-yard field goal from Jacob Baldwin.
Starmount went three-and-out, and a short punt gave the Eagles the ball at the Rams’ 39. Again, Johnson’s defense clamped down, eventually stuffing McConnell just short of the goal line on fourth down.
Any momentum from that play was swept away two snaps later when Starmount lost another fumble, this one at the 7-yard-line. This time, Wilkes Central converted, with Chris Watt surging in from 3 yards out on the opening play of the second period. Baldwin’s PAT made the score 10-0 Central, but coach Jeremy Funderburk believes the margin should have been wider by that point.
“We should have put 21 points on them early. That’s the only way you can beat them,” Funderburk said.
Jac McCracken pulled Starmount within 10-6 after a 5-yard touchdown run. The Rams got the ball back, but Wilkes Central held on a fourth-down play at midfield to regain possession with 4:27 remaining. Three plays later, Dustin Triplett was off to the races down the right sideline for a 36-yard TD burst. Baldwin’s PAT made the score 17-6.
At that point, it looked like Johnson’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-short near the 50 might be the turning point of the game.
“Sometimes you’ve got to believe in your kids,” Johnson said. “They wanted to go for it and at that point we needed a little momentum and we went for it.”
The Rams felt a lot better about things heading into the halftime locker room after Allen Mendenhall hit a 36-yard field goal with two seconds on the clock. That made the score 17-9 Central.
The Rams had to punt on their first possession of the third period, but this time the turnover bug struck Wilkes Central. The Eagles put the ball on the turf, and the Rams recovered at the Central 26. Five plays later, Starmount put another touchdown on the board courtesy of a 1-yard plunge from McCracken.
Fondae McDaniel ran in the two-point conversion, tying the contest 17-17.
Starmount had a chance to go ahead early in the fourth period but missed a 34-yard field goal. But again, Wilkes Central proved to be its own worst enemy. A rash of flags turned a promising possession into second-down and 36 to go from the Central 18.
“You don’t have plays for that,” Funderburk said.
Central eventually had to punt, and that gave the Rams the ball at their 27 with 3:47 left. Using an array of nifty scrambles and runs from quarterback Christian Hurt (22 carries, 153 yards), Starmount moved deep into Wilkes Central territory. After baiting the Eagles with a number of sweeps to the outside, Johnson called for Martin to get the ball on a play called “57 power” – a quick handoff right up the middle.
“We had been stretching them with the motion that we were doing, and we just felt like we could hit it inside on them and we did,” Johnson said. “(Martin) hit a seam and the free safety ran out and it worked out.”
Starmount finishes 10-0 overall and 8-0 in conference. Wilkes Central ends up just a whisker behind at 9-1, 7-1 MVAC. It was a tough loss to swallow for players and coaches wearing gold and green Friday night.
“We didn’t execute well enough to put them away when we need to,” Funderburk said. “You cannot let a team like that hang around in a ball game. We had the opportunity to put them away in the first half and didn’t do it. That cost us the game.”