Special to LTN
DENVER — Let’s get this out of the way first: East Lincoln beat Lincolnton, 13-8, on Friday night. It was a conference win in the county’s fiercest rivalry that kept the Mustangs undefeated on the season and likely preserved their No. 2 state ranking.
But celebrations on the East Lincoln sideline were subdued — it did not feel like your typical win in the typical game against the team you typically enjoy beating the most.
That’s because with 3:22 remaining in the opening quarter, on a first-and-goal play from the Lincolnton 5-yard line, East Lincoln’s season changed. Senior quarterback Garrett Young took the snap, turned to hand off the ball, but there was no running back to take it. Forced to improvise on a field left soggy after storms delayed the kickoff for more than 30 minutes, Young was swarmed by Darian Roseboro and the Lincolnton defense.
The Wolves emerged from the pileup, but Young did not. Young’s left kneecap popped out of place. He was helped off the field and returned to the Mustangs’ sideline after halftime on crutches wearing a brace on his left knee. He planned to have an MRI on Saturday and will find out the extent of the injury this week.
After the game, Young, who has dealt with this type of injury twice before, was optimistic.
“Best-case scenario is two weeks, back by Lake Norman Charter,” said Young, who entered Friday’s game averaging more than 300 passing yards per contest. “I’ll get my MRI. I put it back in myself and tried to get back up. I’ve done it before — this is the third time it’s happened. It happened during basketball my sophomore year and then it happened again. It came out pretty good. I put it back in myself on the field, but I couldn’t get back up.”
East Lincoln coach Mike Byus was not as hopeful. He said he would wait to see what the MRI revealed and would move forward with the mindset that freshman Chaz Surratt will be his quarterback indefinitely.
“We’ll practice and he’ll get all the reps and we’ll go on,” Byus said.
As for the game, the young Wolves seized the opportunity with Young out. Trailing 7-0 after Young’s injury, Lincolnton limited the Mustangs (7-0, 3-0 Southern Piedmont Conference) to 24 yards on 10 plays the rest of the first half.
The Wolves (2-4, 1-2 SPC) put together a 12-play drive to start the third quarter, but stalled at the East Lincoln 41-yard line. Tanner Cantrell’s punt pinned the Mustangs at their own 6-yard line.
On third-and-6 from the 10-yard line, Roseboro blew through the East Lincoln line and had the left-handed Surratt running for his life to his right in the end zone. Surratt tossed an ill-advised pass in the flat and Lincolnton’s Justice Whitesides picked it off and scored from six yards to cut the East Lincoln lead to 7-6.
“I saw an in-the-flat or a screen pass and my job was to get the guy in the backfield,” Whitesides said. “I just went there and was in the right place at the right time. Really, it was just good coaching.”
Prepared to kick the extra point and tie the game, Lincolnton coach Scott Cloninger changed his mind after East Lincoln was whistled for encroachment prior to the kick. With the ball spotted inside the 2, he sent his offense back onto the field and Whitesides, who ran for 38 yards on 16 carries, found a crease to the end zone to give the Wolves an 8-6 lead with 3:08 left.
That’s when Surratt did his best Garrett Young impression.
Following Lincolnton’s go-ahead score, the Mustangs’ next two plays netted negative-8 yards. On third-and-18, Surratt found Jake Driver for a 30-yard gain to extend the drive. Two plays later, Surratt lofted a pass over the middle to Damisho Finandis, who made a juggling, one-handed catch and scored from 39 yards to put the Mustangs back on top, 13-8, with 53.7 seconds remaining in the quarter.
Lincolnton’s best opportunity to regain the lead came after Quinlyn Harris returned the ensuing kickoff 57 yards to the East Lincoln 26. But Jordon Easter’s fourth-down pass at the 20 was incomplete and the Wolves didn’t cross midfield the rest of the way.
“We didn’t score anything offensively, they’re faster than us and we never could break that big long play that we needed,” Cloninger said. “We had chances — on one of the returns we were behind them and they caught us.”
Byus, whose team plays at West Lincoln on Friday, said it was apparent that Young’s injury motivated the Wolves and that it’s the type of scenario that can turn a rivalry game one way or the other.
“If you’re one particular team and you’re going into the game as an underdog and you’re playing hard and the other team has a star player go down, then your belief level on whether you can win that game or not ramps up a couple of notches,” Byus said. “All of the sudden, you’re energy level ramps up even more.”
Fortunately for the Mustangs, they were able to hold on for the win and get Surratt some needed experience. At the same time, the Wolves — a young team plagued by numerous injuries this season — saw plenty to build on entering Friday’s game against Cherryville.
“I told them I was very proud of them, they didn’t leave anything on the field. They played their hearts out and we had an opportunity to make something happen,” Cloninger said.