Rockets’ Run Ends 24-21 in Last-minute Shocker

By Pete Zamplas- Lady Luck snatched near-certain victory from A.C. Reynolds Friday, fatally striking after the Rockets scored two quick touchdowns in the fourth quarter and the defense held visiting Mount Tabor on downs in a gallant goal-line stand.

Star Rocket QB Alex Flinn charges for a 13-yard TD run. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

But in running out the clock, ACR fumbled it back to the Spartans on the first play of the would-be clinching drive. The swift underdogs from Winston-Salem cashed in, to win 24-21 in the rain in round three of 3AA playoffs.

Yet the back who coughed up the ball — Jhari Patterson — nearly single-handedly led ACR to its leads. He scored a touchdown on a 53-yard sprint down the left side, off of a screen from senior Alex Flinn on the game’s opening drive.

Rocket 3,000-yard passer Flinn fielded a very high snap, then promptly tossed the pass. This was two plays after Patterson began the drive by taking a handoff and blasting through for over 25 yards.

Best of all, Patterson’s 59-yard jaunt in the final quarter got Reynolds to within two points. Patterson stepped to his left with that handoff, danced back, then zoomed up the middle untouched as the home crowd roared. At the MTHS 48, he was just behind two defenders including swift star running QB-CB JaQuan Albright. He passed them both 13 yards later. Flinn and other Rockets thrust arms up triumphantly.

Patterson carried the ball nine times (including the first eight plays) for 33 yards in ACR’s go-ahead drive in the final quarter. The 6-foot-1, 180 junior was the team’s leading receiver, when he switched to tailback after I’dre Bell’s injury a month ago. Bell, a senior, ran for a few plays Friday. Patterson is among skill players who will lead ACR in 2019.

Reynolds, the West Region’s second seed and last Buncombe squad standing, ends up 12-2 after its six-game home playoff win streak was snapped. ACR head coach Shane Laws praised his squad’s effort Friday. Reynolds, which won four rounds last year, reached the third round for five years in a row including in ’18.

Jhari Patterson zooms by Mount Tabor star JaQuan Albright (10) and Qumar Price (11), on a 59-yard TD run to give ACR a late lead. Photo by Pete Zamplas.

Third seed Mount Tabor (10-4) this Friday hosts ACR’s arch-nemesis Weddington (12-2) which upset previously-unbeaten top seed Watauga by 42-14. Rocket fans had hoped for a chance for payback against Weddington. That school KOed ACR from the third round in ‘14-16, before sliding down from 3AA to 3A last year then returning to 3AA in ’19.

At Reynolds, first ACR then MTHS scored on opening drives. Mt. Tabor answered, tying it on an 11-yard TD run by Zyquez McMillian at the 8:39 mark of the first quarter.

Two gaffes hurt ACR. First, the kick returner slipped on the wet turf down on one knee at his one yard line. ACR was backed up big time. On the very first play, Markeese Jackson was tackled in the end zone for a two-point safety. Ironically, an ACR lineman had implored teammates with “let’s go score!” before that fateful possession. The safety gave the Spartans their first lead, at 9-7. That score lasted to halftime.

Both defenses tightened in a scoreless second quarter and penalties mounted, forcing punts on eight drives in a row leading to the break.

Further, senior safety Warren Stotesbury snuffed out a scoring drive with an interception in the third quarter. CB Malakai Ray made pivotal deflections of passes. Star senior MLB Eli Hembree got a key sack of Albright.
The Spartans relied on two small but very fast runners — mostly Albright — typically to race around corners. Aikens ran for 205 yards and two TDs in MTHS’s 49-28 win a week earlier over Erwin. The Warrior defense keyed on Albright.

The Spartans relied on two small but very fast runners — mostly Albright — typically to race around corners. Amar Aikens ran for 205 yards and two TDs in MTHS’s 49-28 win a week earlier over Erwin. The Warrior defense keyed on Albright.

Those two speedsters had time to dash laterally behind their “Double Wide” O-line. Four of the five blockers extremely stout. Overall, eight Spartans weigh at least 300 pounds compared to one (senior OL Ethan Ritchie, 6-3, 315) for Reynolds. Coach Laws said before the game Spartan blockers are so “wide,” that even by simply standing still they make it tough for D-linemen to get around them to get to ball carriers.

Seth Eberhardt (11) Amar Aikens (2). Photo by Pete Zamplas

Reynolds as usual fired on most cylinders in the second half. Former head coach Bobby Poss watched from the press box. He told The Tribune that on his 1999 and 2002 4A state title squads, there was less size than current Rockets but plenty of emotional drive.

“We had team chemistry, and big hearts,” Poss said. So too do recent teams under Laws, who won the 2008 4A crown. That was the latest football state title for a Buncombe school. He is known for halftime tactical adjustments, and fiery speeches.

The teams took turns forcing turnovers. This time, a Mount Tabor kick returner made a mistake. He was hit, coughed up the ball, and ACR senior Rayquan Williams snatched it. Reynolds had the ball at the Spartan 16. But a 27-yard field goal attempt was blocked, so the Spartans escaped damage.

Stotesbury’s pick started ACR at its five. The Spartans did a bear hug on Markeese Jackson’s cradling of the ball. It squirted loose, and was pounced on by a Spartan. He stumbled then lunged forward to the ACR five. Albright dashed a yard for the TD. The PAT made it 16-7, as MTHS had its largest lead (of nine points) with 7:27 left in the third.

Reynolds scored two TDs in the first 1:45 of the fourth quarter, to seize the lead and momentum. Patterson was the workhorse by running the ball on the first eight plays and nine of 11 plays of a 54-yard scoring drive late in the third. He got two first downs on three runs of 10, five then five yards. On third-and-three, he gained seven.
To cap it off, Flinn burst 13 yards into the end zone on a keeper on third and ten. That was the first play of the fourth quarter. Kevin Hernandez’ PAT cut the lead to two, at 16-14.

On the score, Flinn faked a handoff to Patterson who was moving Flinn’s right. The burly QB stopped a moment, faked running to his left, then charged up the gut untouched. He was hobbling as he crossed into the end zone. A week earlier, he rushed for nearly 100 yards.

The defense forced a “three and out.” On the first play of ACR’s next series, Patterson scored on that dynamic 59-yard TD run. Reynolds led 21-16, with 10:15 to go.

Mt. Tabor went three and out, but stopped ACR’s Patterson a half-yard short on fourth and one. Tabor took over at its 45 with seven minutes left, and moved the ball. On fourth and eight, Albright hit the tight end for nine yards to move the chains. Soon after, an illegal “horse collar” tackle advanced the Spartans to the ACR 11.

But Reynold’s D stiffened against the run. First, Eli Hembree and crew downed Aikens for no gain running wide right. Then senior DL George Martinez was the catalyst, for a loss of four yards.

But Albright zipped off nine yards on third and 14, to set up fourth and five from the six yard line. The Spartans were merely one more Albright keeper from first and goal, with two minutes to play.

Remarkably, a parade of three offsides calls ensued. The first, on ACR, inched the ball to the three. It was now fourth and a mere yard to go, with the end zone painfully close.

But as Albright dragged out the count to try to draw ACR off again, his double-wide blockers eventually budged offsides — twice in a row. That set the ball from the three back to the ACR 13. It was now fourth and 11. The home crowd sighed with relief.

Albright escaped two rushers to his right to unleash a pass toward the end zone. But the pass was deflected, to turn the ball over to ACR on downs. This was deja vu of a week earlier, when Sun Valley’s state record-breaking (17,000 total career yards) QB Sam Howell scrambled for three plays to heave passes to the end zone — but come up empty.

But the football gods shook all of Fairview on the very next play, from the ACR 13. Patterson’s fumble slipped out, and bounced to Mt. Tabor for a miracle extra chance. The Spartans started at the ACR eight, with 1:46 left. Aikens got over halfway to the goal line, gaining five to the three. Eli Hembree led a posse swarming Albright for no gain. But Aikens gained two, to the one-yard line.

The Spartans once again had fourth down and only one yard to go — this time for the winning score, not merely a first down. No wide-body offsides, this time. Albright zipped up the middle for a one-yard TD as a change of direction, after running wide for nearly the entire game. A half-minute remained.

Bell was tackled for no gain at the 21 returning the squib kickoff. Reynolds’ last gasp started with 25.3 seconds to play. Instead of getting off a pass, Flinn fled rushers out of the pocket and was stopped at the 24. With the clock about to run out, he had to spike the ball and waste a down to get one last play with 2.9 ticks to go. Then, his pass to Jackson was incomplete. The crowd and press box inhabitants seemed stunned.

The traditional post-game lineup for handshakes was skipped. Instead, a melee developed after Reynolds objected to some Mount Tabor players rubbing it in. They did so by sliding on the slick field, to near the ACR sideline and Rockets. Both teams converged at midfield and tussled a bit, before coaches soon separated them.

At least one Rocket gets a last hurrah, in an all-star game between seniors. Blocker C.J. Elmonus (6-7, 265) is the sole WNC player chosen to play for North Carolina against S.C. in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas. Often there are injury replacements, so more from WNC could follow. The game is Saturday, Dec. 15 at 1 p.m. — as usual at Wofford College in Spartanburg.

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