By RYAN HERMAN
DENVER –– It wasn’t the coronation to a conference championship East Lincoln expected, but in the end the Mustangs capped another perfect season with another conference title.
Chris Cox threw for 183 yards and four touchdowns, including the game winner with 37.8 seconds to play and East Lincoln held off West Lincoln 42-40 on Thursday to win the Southern District 7 Athletic 2A Conference championship outright.
Cox’s night –– he completed 17 of 24 passes, four of which went for scores of 10, 12, 27 and 3 yards –– was nearly outdone by a West Lincoln team bent on spoiling the Mustangs’ run at back-to-back league titles and perfect seasons. But a 3-yard dump from Cox to sophomore Sammie Cunningham gave East Lincoln (10-0, 7-0) the lead for good in a see-saw game that featured six lead changes.
“We thought it was going to be easy, because West Lincoln, we always blow them out,” Cunningham said. “That was difficult, they had some fast people that we didn’t even expect.”
Zane Peterson had 24 carries for 169 yards and two TDs, and Hunter Church added 10 carries for 124 yards and a pair of scores to lead a West Lincoln rushing attack that had 334 total yards.
The Mustangs (10-0, 7-0) led 16-6 at the end of the first quarter, but the Rebels (5-5, 3-4) answered with three straight scores to take a 26-16 lead 2 minutes into the second half.
A 24-yard TD run by Cox and a 12-yard TD pass by the sophomore to Cameron Dollar gave East Lincoln a 32-30 lead at the end of the third.
From then on it was beat this. Church’s 46-yard run on a misdirection gave the lead back to the Rebels, the Cox hit Dollar with a 27-yard TD pass to give it back to the Mustangs.
Church added a 47-yard TD run with 2:15 to play as West Lincoln went up 40-36. East Lincoln then went 65 yards in 11 plays to take the lead for good when Cox found Cunningham wide open in the flats for the final score.
East Lincoln, which hadn’t stopped West Lincoln from scoring on a drive all game, held the Rebels on their final drive.
“Usually our defense is getting to the ball, getting tackles in the backfield, but I don’t know,” Cunningham said. “I guess we had our heads (held) too high or something.
“We’ve got great leaders on this team –– and a great coaching staff. We were like, ‘Keep your head up, keep your head up,’ and just stayed hyped.”
West Lincoln entered having lost three straight after a five-game win streak had it in a three-way tie for first in the league just a few weeks ago with Maiden and the Mustangs.
Down by 10, Noah Marsh connected with Brandon Schesny on a 29-yard TD pass to cut it to 16-12 with 3:11 left in the first half. That exact same amount of time later, Peterson barreled his way in from the 1 as time expired in the half, giving the Rebels an 18-16 lead at the break –– the first time East Lincoln had trailed at the half all year.
West Lincoln pushed its lead to 10 at the 8:01 mark of the third quarter when Peterson carried it 74 yards to paydirt. After the two-point conversion run by Peterson, the Rebels led 26-16.
They threw everything they had at the Mustangs –– a fake extra-point for a conversion, several misdirection runs that went for big gains, and a hook-and-ladder play that went for 18 yards on the game’s final snap –– and had a chance to pull off the upset of their season with 33.1 seconds left.
East Lincoln finally put West Lincoln’s upset bid to rest.
“We told (our kids) all week in practice that we were going to throw everything and the kitchen sink at them, and you seen it,” Rebels coach Philip Russ said. “Our sophomores stood out tonight. Leadership was the key in this one.”
“We just lined up and ran out plays,” Russ added. “When you’re the underdog, you have nothing to lose. We get to take a lot of good positives from this. Our freshman get to take something with them for next year, and our sophomores get to take something with them to varsity.”
Cunningham finished with 125 yards rushing and Dollar had 105 yards receiving and three scores. Marsh added a 12-yard score that made it 8-6 in favor of East Lincoln early. Cox ran for 44 yards and scored on runs of 3 and 24 yards.
“Two seasons straight, this is great,” Cunningham said. “It feels pretty good. A lot of people don’t get to that.”
LINCOLNTON 38, MAIDEN 22: At Lincolnton, the Wolves ended their season with a blowout win of the second-place Blue Devils to finish fourth in the league.
Xavier McKlean had three touchdowns and Jaliek Littlejohn scored two for Lincolnton (6-4, 4-3). They had a two-point conversion each and Mason MacLaughlin added two two-point conversions.
Maiden (8-2, 5-2) finished tied for second with Bandys (6-3, 5-2), which routed Newton-Conover 44-0.