Special to LTN
DENVER — East Lincoln coach Mike Byus prefers avoiding close calls, but also recognizes the benefit of being tested from start to finish.
On Friday night in the second round of the 2A state playoffs, the Mustangs were challenged for the first time in nearly a month and passed the test with a 37-24 victory against Starmount.
“I don’t like them at all,” said a smiling Byus when asked about having a tight game. “I told our kids, you’re going to have to play 48 minutes tonight and that will help us moving into next week. The fact that we came in tonight and there was no way we were going to be able to shut it down in the middle of the third quarter. We had to play an entire 48 minutes and that can only help us moving forward.”
East Lincoln (13-0), which lost to Starmount in the first round of the playoffs last year, plays Thomasville (6-7) at home on Friday.
As it has been for most of the season, the Mustangs posted big numbers on offense. But when the game was still in the balance, it was the defense that rose to the challenge against a Starmount squad that answered every time East Lincoln pulled ahead through three quarters.
With an array of running backs, the Rams gained 209 yards on the ground and threw for another 83 to keep the Mustangs on their toes most the night. They converted a rare Garrett Young interception into a touchdown and James Watson returned a kickoff 85 yards for another first-half score.
Starmount tied the game for the third time, 21-21, on the first possession of the second half. Young, who completed 13 of 19 passes for 232 yards, then threw three consecutive incomplete passes and the Mustangs punted the ball back to the Rams (11-2).
The Rams had first down on East Lincoln’s 31 and the momentum squarely their side. That’s when Mustangs cornerback Billy Misenheimer darted into the backfield and tackled Rams leading rusher Chaston Martin 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage. On the next play, Damarius Valentine broke up a would-be touchdown pass by getting his fingertips on a pass at the goal line.
“Coach called a blitz and I just flew in there and happened to be in the right spot,” said Misenheimer, who added a sack and recovered a Starmount onside kick late in the game. “We all got pumped up and everything came together from there. You just have to play your assignments and sooner or later, something good is going to happen. As long you listen to your coaches, do what you’re supposed to do, then everything happens that is supposed to happen.”
And for the Mustangs, that usually comes in the form of a Young touchdown pass.
After taking over on its own 12, East Lincoln took to the air. On third-and-9, Young hit Jesse Earnhardt for a 46-yard pickup. On the next play, Young hit freshman Chaz Surratt for a 41-yard score to put the Mustangs ahead for good, 28-21, with 3:26 left in the third quarter.
“At times we’re pretty explosive,” Byus said of the four-play drive that covered 88 yards. “We’ll putter around here and there and then we’ll hit a big play and sometimes we’ll hit one or two big plays in a row. We felt like we had them set up for that. They jumped all over a little short hitch we ran out here early. We had scored on it a week earlier, so obviously they’d seen that before. So we came down here and faked it and hit the guy who was supposed to block for him down the sideline.”
Starmount cut the lead to 28-24 with a Parker Gunnell 24-yard field goal with 5:29 left in the game. But East Lincoln added a safety and a 2-yard scoring run from Scott McMichael in the final minute to secure the outcome.
East Lincoln piled up 444 yards on the night as Domonique Smith chipped in with a 109-yard effort and first-half touchdown. Marquis Pharr added a 12-yard score, while Surratt had a 5-yard TD reception from Young to pair with his game-clincher in the second half.
With East Lincoln’s attention turned to this week’s matchup, Thomasville running back Gabe Brockett brings an entirely new challenge. He’s topped the 300-yard mark in four consecutive games.
“We’re going to watch a lot of film, get ready and hopefully shut them down,” Misenheimer said.