Just minutes into Friday night’s game, the East Hall High and Chestatee High football teams appeared to be heading for the shootout many anticipated it would be.
The Vikings had other plans.
After falling behind by a touchdown early, East Hall took control of the game to pull away for a 59-37 win at War Eagle Stadium in Gainesville. Senior quarterback Austin Parker threw for 372 yards and four touchdowns while tacking on 100 yards and another score on the ground.
“It goes back to our tough Week 1 game (against Habersham Central) and our scrimmage,” East Hall coach Bryan Gray said. “Our kids understood it wasn’t over because we had already faced some adversity. … The biggest thing was we had heart.”
Junior running back Cambren Harrison (305 total yards) was one of four Vikings receivers to catch a touchdown. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound back bullied his way to 155 rushing yards and a score while adding another 150 yards on seven catches.
Though the Vikings (1-1) amassed 671 yards of offense, their marked improvement on defense after surrendering 72 points last week was a huge factor in the win.
East Hall’s defense gave up touchdowns on the War Eagles’ first two possessions before coming up with enough turnovers and stops to let its explosive offense create some breathing room.
“I thought the defense was really the key tonight,” Parker said. “We have a skilled offense, but we really needed to pick it up on defense. They really did that tonight, and we were just feeding off of each other.”
Besides stressing fundamentals on defense, Gray said he moved a few veteran players around and tried to optimize speed on that side of the ball.
But Chestatee (1-1) seemed poised for a huge night offensively early in the game, as senior quarterback Storm Yarbrough threw a pair of 45-yard touchdown passes in the first four minutes of the game.
Junior receiver Bryson Nowlin hauled in the first one, reaching over the cornerback’s head for the catch before breaking a tackle and racing into the end zone. The second score was a well-timed screen pass to senior running back Nick Lyles on third and 16.
East Hall sandwiched a score of their own between Yarbrough’s touchdown tosses, though it took a gamble. Gray elected to go for it on fourth and 5 near midfield, and the risk paid off as Parker hit senior Austin Brock over the middle for a 56-yard touchdown.
But the fireworks temporarily ended after Lyles’ score, with the next four drives ending with turnovers. Vikings senior linebacker Isaiah Jenkins wrangled two interceptions, Chestatee senior linebacker Reggie James picked off one of his own and East Hall turned the ball over on downs.
“The defense won it for us there,” Parker said. “Yeah, we scored 59 points, but about 21 of those don’t come without those turnovers.
Indeed, the Vikings pulled even with 21 seconds left in the first quarter when Parker threw a 38-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Amir Ellison. The senior signal-caller kept the drive alive with a 27-yard scramble on third and 19.
After a long interception return by Brock, senior receiver Tripp Rider caught a 6-yard touchdown from Parker to give East Hall its first lead of the game at 21-14.
“We really grew up on defense and made a lot of key plays,” Gray said. “Chestatee is an excellent team with a lot of superstar playmakers. So much of good defense is about confidence, and we had a lot of positive things happen for us tonight.”
Chestatee’s offensive frustration continued on the following possession as a penalty negated a touchdown by Lyles and ultimately resulted in a punt. Vikings junior running back Andrew Randall then ripped off a 39-yard touchdown, weaving in and out of defenders for most of the way.
Christian Charles put the War Eagles in great field position with a kick return of more than 50 yards, which Lyles (153 rushing yards) turned into a 14-yard rushing touchdown.
East Hall responded with a little more than a minute until halftime. On third and 12 from the War Eagles 13-yard line, Parker avoided pressure and scrambled into the end zone to make it 35-21 at the break.
The Vikings seized total control of the game with a dominant third quarter. They held Chestatee to negative yardage and scored three times — Parker hit Harrison for a 14-yard touchdown, while Randall and Harrison each plunged into the end zone from a yard out.
“Our running game opened things up a lot,” Gray said. “It’s not just Cambren. We’ve got a few other backs we really like, and they all do something different. The passing lanes really open up when those guys get going.”
Yarbrough found senior receiver Reggie James for a 24-yard touchdown to begin the fourth quarter, and Lyles later scampered 57 yards for another score, but the game was out of reach by that point.
East Hall tacked on a 19-yard field goal before the second-string offense surrendered a safety.
The War Eagles will travel to Flowery Branch High next week, while the Vikings have an open date before going to Johnson High on Sept. 8.