Ashe County knew entering the game to beat East Lincoln, they would need to stop Mustang seniors Thomas Huntley and Ryan Sykes.
Despite doing everything they could to prevent both from turning in explosive plays, Huntley and Sykes made enough big plays to garner whatâ€™s believed to be East Lincolnâ€™s first home playoff victory ever in 27-14 fashion.
While the talented twosome have gathered most of the publicity this season, the Mustangsâ€™ bend-but-donâ€™t-break defense was just as solid Friday night.
Twice, in the third quarter, the Mustangsâ€™ defense led by Colby Anderson and Matt Warren turned away Ashe County inside East Lincolnâ€™s 25-yard line.
â€œOur defense has been doing great for the past five or six ball games. We bend, but we donâ€™t break. We just came through. I got my boys psyched and we came with it,â€ Warren said.
The second they did so, perhaps was the game decider. After Whitt forced a turnover on downs, with a tackle of junior Eathan Goodman, Sykes found the right sideline for an 89-yard scoring jaunt, giving the Mustangs a 27-7 lead as the extra point was blocked.
On the Huskies ensuing possession, Huntley reeled in his 11th interception, which is tops in the state of North Carolina.
Despite the big play by Huntley, Ashe County refused to quit as Workman found wideout Joseph Moser for a 14-yard touchdown on the ensuing possession. Kicker Michael Graybeal knocked through the extra point drawing his team within two scores at 27-14.
Junior Matt Hughes was responsible for one of the biggest plays of night, as he recovered an onside kick with just over seven minutes remaining. On the play, Hughes, 5â€™10â€ 170 pounds, was crushed as soon as he caught the ,ball but he demonstrated good hands and toughness as retained possession.
On the Huskies final two drives, Anderson and Sykes, yes that one, came away with back-to-back sacks to help hold off the resilient Huskies.
Senior running back Ryan Sykes rushed for 206 yards and two touchdowns in the Mustangsâ€™ first round playoff game versus Ashe County. Heâ€™ll be looking for more of the same success against Forest Hills this Friday. Joseph Brymer / LTN Photo
Sykes, the Southern Piedmontâ€™s leading rusher, was largely held in check until the third quarter when he exploded for a 65-yard touchdown run and the aforementioned back breaker.
Playing in his first playoff game, Sykes turned in a stellar performance, rushing for 206 yards on just 17 carries.
â€œIn the first half, I really couldnâ€™t break loose like I wanted to. They were big and faster than I thought they were on the ends. Thatâ€™s the biggest defense weâ€™ve played with a little bit of speed on them too,â€ Sykes said. â€œI got that first half out of the way and coming into the second half, I knew I was just going to have to play harder and try to get some big runs and try to win the game,â€ he added.
Huntley, nicknamed the Silent Assassin for his quiet but deadly play, gave the Mustangs a 7-0 lead in the first quarter on a deep bomb from junior quarterback Payton Brady that covered 70 yards.
With 11:58 in the second quarter, Brady, found the end zone from one yard out. Kicker Ryan Hultgrenâ€™s extra point gave East Lincoln a 14-0 advantage.
Although, senior Justin Hodges surpassed the century mark with 122 yards on 21 carries, East Lincolnâ€™s rush defense was stout, as the Hukies averaged less than three yards per carry.
Brady, a North Lincoln transfer, had an efficient performance going six-for-12 with 101 yards passing. Brady, who was forced into action, after senior starter Greyson Schram broke his hand in practice by hitting it on an offensive linemanâ€™s helmet, felt his teammatesâ€™ encouragement calmed his nerves.
â€œRight now is the best feeling. I was so nervous Tuesday and I was quiet,â€ he said. â€œThey just kept on encouraging me, telling me, â€˜Youâ€™re going to do it, youâ€™re going to do it,â€ he added.
East Lincolnâ€™s head coach Mike Byus felt the biggest play of the night came at the beginning of the second half.
â€œThey drove the ball down the field on the opening kickoff of the second half, then we finally bucked up and stopped them on downs,â€ he said.
Winners of seven-of-their-last eight ballgames, the green and orange has become overachievers under Byusâ€™ direction.
â€œIâ€™m not familiar with our history, but the point is this group banded together after a rough early start. They stayed together, they believed in us (the coaches) and in themselves and we just keep getting better,â€ he said. â€œThat was our themeâ€”win, lose or draw, we just keep getting better,â€ he said.
Huntley led the Mustangs with three catches for 115 yards, including a sensational 14-yard, over-the-head-catch in the third quarter. Moser led the Huskies with four catches for 67 yards.
In the second round, the Mustangs will square off against No. 3 seed Marshville Forest Hills. So while Friday nightâ€™s win will go down in the school-history books, Byus and company didnâ€™t have much time to celebrate.
â€œI understand this group is fast. Weâ€™ll go prepare, the kids will get ready to play and weâ€™ll band together as a team and do what we have to do to get the job done,â€ Byus said.
Entering the game, Huskies had only given up an average of 10 points per contest.
by John Mark Brooks