DALLASâ€”The magic number was â€œfourâ€ for East Lincoln and North Gaston going into Friday nightâ€™s Big South 3A Conference encounter.
Both teams entered the contest stuck on two wins, and four are needed to technically qualify for the 64-team two-division state 3A playoffs.
After the smoke cleared in a wild, back-and-forth game, North Gaston moved within one notch of its goal, while East Lincoln saw its playoff hopes take a hit in a 33-26 victory by the home-standing Wildcats.
The outcome left North Gaston 3-5 overall, 1-3 in the Big South, while East Lincoln slipped to 2-6, 1-3.
The Mustangs, who host Hunter Huss this week, will have to win two of the last three regular season games to put themselves in the playoff picture. North Gaston could reach the major number this week at home against East Gaston.
On a night when the East Lincoln running game was held to negative net yardage (19 carries for minus six), and top rusher Ryan Sykes was sidelined with an injury, quarterback Grayson Schram and all-purpose player Thomas Huntley made enough big plays to keep the Mustangs in the game to the wire.
Schram threw for 204 yards and two touchdowns, and Huntley returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to pull East Lincoln within one point, 27-26.
However, North Gaston answered East Lincolnâ€™s big play on special teams with a one-yard touchdown run by quarterback Jeff Johnson to make it 33-26. The Wildcats then hung on to get their first Big South win after an 0-3 start.
Schram threw touchdown passes of nine yards to Xavier Alexander and 20 yards to Seth Alexander to rally East from a 12-0 deficit and send the visitors into the half ahead 13-12.
In the third quarter, North Gaston went ahead 20-13 before the Mustangs tied the score at 20 on Tavarus Freedomâ€™s one-yard run and Ellis Dunstonâ€™s extra point kick.
The Wildcats regained the lead once more in the fourth quarter on an eight-yard touchdown run by Rafael Littlejohn, who ranks seventh on Gaston Countyâ€™s all-time career rushing list.
North Gastonâ€™s workhorse back carried 37 times for 214 yards to bring his career total to 3,459 yards. Littleljohn is now only six yards behind No. 6 all-time rusher Oreon Mayfield of Ashbrook.
For East Lincoln, Schram went over the 200-yard mark for the second time in three weeks, going 19-for-33. However, one downside to Schramâ€™s night was the three errant passes picked off North Gaston.
Johnson, Schramâ€™s counterpart, went 9-for-20 for 130 yards and three two interceptions.
East Lincolnâ€™s Seth Alexander was the gameâ€™s leading receiver with eight catches for 105 yards. North Gastonâ€™s Jake Campbell, one of the areaâ€™s top-rated pass catchers, caught three balls for 62 yards.
by Mike Powell