Like many times before this season, the East Hall High football team found itself locked in a shootout during Friday night’s second-round playoff game against Westminster.
In a contest riddled with scoring madness, both teams combined for more than 1,000 yards of total offense and 14 plays spanning 20 or more yards. But in the end, the No. 4 seed Vikings came up just short in a 59-57 loss to the third-seeded Wildcats.
“Couple of different plays on either side would have made the difference … and they got that,” East Hall coach Bryan Gray said. “Our kids, we’re two-and-a half elementary schools of strong, hard-nosed kids coming down here to Atlanta, and we never backed down. Never for one second did we think we didn’t belong. ... We showed everybody we belonged (tonight).”
Despite setting a school record for points allowed, the Wildcats (7-5) recorded their second victory against an opponent with a winning record in 2017 and advance to play top-seeded Peach County next Friday night.
Vikings senior quarterback Austin Parker, the state’s leading passer, threw for 515 yards and six touchdowns and even added a 12-yard rushing score in the third quarter. Junior running back Cambren Harrison racked up 289 total yards and a pair of touchdowns — one rushing and one receiving.
But among the scoring flurry, it was really Charlie Ham’s 44-yard field goal right before halftime that made all the difference for Westminster. It occurred one snap after East Hall (7-5) nearly picked off Westminster quarterback Ward Croft on third down, and three plays after the Vikings were stuffed on fourth-and-short inside their own territory.
Westminster also made just enough stops and created enough opportunities on defense. Defensive back Luke Janetta picked off Parker three times, his second return resulting in a 40-yard touchdown in the opening quarter, and the Vikings turned the ball over on downs three times in the game.
Wildcats running back Joe Eagan rushed for a team-high 183 yards and four scores, while Miles Davis added 144 and a touchdown for Westminster.
Fans were treated to points, and plenty of them, before Westminster built a 38-28 hafltime lead. Westminster and East Hall traded touchdowns less than three minutes into the opening quarter, and both teams went on to accrue 66 points and 663 yards in the first 24 minutes.
But Westminster’s reputably stingy defense also came out early with two interceptions. Janetta’s first interception, which came off a double ricochet, set up the Wildcats for a brief scoring drive capped by a Davis’ 41-yard touchdown scamper.
Their next two scores came on a pair of quick plays — a 52-yard rush by Ward Croft and Janetta’s interception touchdown. They were sandwiched between a pair of touchdown throws by Parker, who hit Sedrion Morse on a 24-yard floater before firing a beautifully thrown ball to Cambren Harrison in stride for a 51-yard catch-and-dash score along the visitor’s sideline.
Parker’s next two completions tied it up at 21-all minutes later, and then the Viking defense held the Wildcats to a three-and-out. Parker hit Tripp Rider, who made an impressive leaping grab up the middle for a 32-yard touchdown.
Harrison’s lone rushing touchdown, a 16-yard run off the counter, capped an 80-yard march to answer back-to-back scoring drives by Westminster that spanned from the end of the opening quarter until early in the second.
East Hall’s season comes to an end after shattering school records in terms of points scored and watching Parker (4,541 yards this season) emerge as the team’s first-ever 4,000-yard passer.
Gray bids farewell to a senior class that gave the program its first playoff win in 24 years. Parker, Rider, Sedrion Morse, Austin Brock and Amir Ellison were a slew of playmakers that helped the Vikings average 44 points and more than 541 yards a contest as part of their historic 2017 campaign.
The same senior group that dissected the shortcomings of a three-win 2016 season came out on the mission in 2017. After dropping the season opener to Class 6A Habersham Central, the Vikings fed off that narrow loss to explode on a six-game win streak.
Despite falling in three of their last four in the region slate to end the regular season, East Hall gladly took the No. 4 seed and turned some heads with a first-round upset of region champion Morgan County.
“If we had tears, it will only be because of our last game with their family,” Gray said. “But it should never be for their effort or their season because we’ve had a tremendous season, a tremendous one these kids can look back on and be proud of for a very long time.”
And as the team gathered for one last post-game debriefing, Parker congratulated his teammates and fellow seniors on one unforgettable run. Right before breaking the huddle, Parker gave his last command.
“‘Family’ on three, everybody,” he said.