Trailing by three headed into the final 12 minutes, No. 2 New Hanover saved its best football for the fourth quarter as the Wildcats used a team effort in all three facets of the game to grab a 24-17 win over No. 7 West Johnston at Legion Stadium on Friday night.
With 1:26 to go and the home side in front by a touchdown, West Johnston faced fourth down on the five-yard line and Carroll Brisbon picked off quarterback Andre Wilson in the end zone to send New Hanover into the third round of the 4A playoffs.
“We did the little things tonight and that’s what you need when you get to this point of the season,” said New Hanover Coach Earl Smith. “We came out flat and hats off to Coach Jimmie Williams. He and I go way back from my time in Raleigh and his team came out to play.”
The high octane Wildcats offense spit and sputtered until their final two possessions, which resulted in 14 points and the go-ahead score from Keegan Santos on a two-yard run to close an eight-play, 70-yard drive with 5:18 remaining.
Burke Estes hit Tre Age on a middle screen for a 21-yard gain during the final drive and a roughing the passer penalty moved the ball to the West Johnston 34-yard line. Two plays later, the senior quarterback hit Garrett Walston for only his second catch of the game on a 21-yard reception to get inside the red zone.
“Tonight was probably my worst game in high school,” Estes said. “Our defense kept us in it and it says a lot about how far this team has come to be able to get a win like this late in the season.”
A 35-yard field goal by Cristian Torres put West Johnston in front 17-10 with 1:39 to go in the third quarter, but Wiz Vaughn took the ensuing kickoff 50 yards on the return to give New Hanover favorable field position. The Wildcats moved the chains on a big third down conversion from Estes to Walston to keep the drive alive on the final play of the frame, while Estes scrambled on 3rd and 7 for a 10-yard touchdown later in the possession to tie the game.
With things squared 17-all, the New Hanover defense stuffed the visitors from Benson on a fourth and short early in the fourth quarter to set up the winning score by Santos.
Senior safety Ronnie Beatty had 11 tackles and sophomore linebacker Nas Brown finished with a game-high 12 tackles in the result. Grant Daley also had a first quarter interception, but the sophomore was carted off the field midway through the third quarter with a leg injury.
“We lost Grant and I’m headed to the hospital right now,” Smith added. “It’s a tough injury to see that happen to a great kid, but our guys responded for him and we had everyone on board defensively tonight to keep us in it.”
Walston spent most of the second half playing on both sides of the ball as the University of North Carolina commit lined up at defensive end as New Hanover allowed just three points in the second half thanks to strong play from Isaiah Crawford and Jamious Williams up front
West Johnston put together a great game plan to stop the Wildcats offense, with man coverage on the outside, but New Hanover was able to get a few big plays early in the game, including a 69-yard touchdown pass from Estes to Lamont Howard on the first play of the second quarter to take a 10-7 lead.
Estes completed just 8 of 24 pass attempts for 144 yards, while the running game finished with 84 yards on the ground.
“Usually when you play the way we did on offense you lose football games,” Estes said. “But, we stayed resilient and that says a lot about how far we’ve come this year.”
After forcing the Wildcats to go three and out on the opening possession in the first quarter, a one-yard punt gave West Johnston great field position and Wilson hit Michael Holloway three plays later on an 18-yard slant for the early 7-0 edge.
Josiah Eason put New Hanover on the board with a 35-yard field goal at the 5:26 mark of the opening frame as the Wildcats trailed 14-10 at the break after West Johnston drove 80 yards on 13 plays, capped on a two-yard touchdown by Jake Strickland midway through the second quarter.
Howard finished with two catches for 92 yards and one touchdown. Santos had one catch for 22 yards and Walston recorded 32 yards receiving.
“Burke hung in there tough tonight, especially late,” said Smith. “They had a great game plan and have a good football team. When you get to this stage in the playoffs there are going to be times when you get behind. It’s about responding and doing what you need to do to score and pull it out.
“I told the guys there’s nothing better than playing football on Thanksgiving weekend and we’re excited about the opportunity.”
New Hanover improved to 11-2 overall and entertain No. 3 Durham-Hillside in the third round of the 4A state tournament on Friday, Nov. 27. Hillside defeated No. 6 Hoggard 42-14 on Friday night.
W. Johnston 7-7-3-0=17
New Hanover 3-7-0-14=24
W. Johnston- Andre Wilson, 18-yard pass to Michael Holloway, (PAT, Cristian Torres) 10:00
New Hanover- Josiah Eason, 35-yard field goal, 5:26
New Hanover- Burke Estes, 72-yard pass to Lamont Howard, (PAT, Eason) 11:49
W. Johnston- Jake Strickland, 2-yard run, (PAT, Torres) 5:00
W. Johnston- Cristian Torres, 34-yard field goal, 1:35
New Hanover- Burke Estes, 10-yard run, (PAT, Eason) 10:22
New Hanover- Keegan Santos, 2-yard run, (PAT, Eason) 5:18