By Jacob Hancock
The Daily Record of Dunn
FOUR OAKS — South Johnston fans were left with a lof of “what if’s” in Thursday night’s 28-13 loss to Greater Neuse Conference rival Cleveland.
If the Trojans had won, they would have clenched at least a share of the conference title. Instead, Cleveland celebrated as undefeated and undisputed champions.
The Trojans started off with a big splash, recovering a fumble on the opening kickoff as rain came pouring down in Four Oaks. Jaequan Wells followed up that splash with a cannonball of a run, taking it 54 yards to the house to give South the early 7-0 lead.
The Trojans’ defense forced a three-and-out on Cleveland’s first possession, and South’s offense marched all the way down to the Rams’ 7-yard line, thanks to back-to-back 11-yard passes from senior quarterback Josh Schindler on third and fourth down to preserve the drive. But then a mishandled handoff was swallowed up by Cleveland. The Rams took over at their own 10 and scored on just four plays to tie it up 7-7 with 2:27 in the first quarter.
‘What if South had punched it in and gone up by two touchdowns?’
On South’s next drive, Schindler threw an interception and injured his hand on the play. He was forced to leave the game, which meant sophomore backup Chase Carroll had to step up. Carroll was solid, going 6-14 passing for 85 yards and a touchdown.
“I was never anticipating Chase’s first varsity game to be this one,” South Johnston head coach Matthew Riggsbee said. “But we have gotten him in to play some significant snaps this year. Chase is a talented quarterback, and he’s a smart quarterback, and he’s got a great quarterback coach. Chase and Josh are like brothers, and as soon as Josh was hurt, Chase had his back, and Josh was there for him the rest of the game. I’m proud of both of them for that.”
But the Trojans still struggled to score without their leader. South’s playmakers were able to get the occasional big gain, but the offense couldn’t quite string together a complete drive.
‘What if Schindler hadn’t gotten hurt?’
Still, the Trojans’ defense remained resilient. After Schindler came out, they forced the Rams into a turnover on downs and a three-and-out on their next two possessions. Against a team that averages more than 44 points and 446 yards of total offense per game, South held Cleveland to 28 points on 369 yards. The Trojans also forced a pair of turnovers — an interception by Keyshawn Sanders and a fumble recovery by Jawuan Smith on back-to-back drives in the third quarter.
“Defense played awesome the entire game,” Riggsbee said. “Are you going to give up big plays against a team like this? Absolutely. But they had to earn this win. Week in and week out, they don’t have to earn their wins, and we made them earn this one.”
But over the course of the game, South lost two more key players. Cody Allen (in the second quarter) and Smith (in the third quarter) were both ejected from the game. Riggsbee said he plans to appeal Allen’s ejection and is confident it will be overturned.
“It absolutely had an impact on the game,” Riggsbee said. “I just told them in the locker room, ‘Every single choice you make will show up on Friday night.’ We’ve just got to change our habits, because they’re going to come back to bite you during a game.”
Cleveland scored on both drives in which Allen and Smith were ejected, giving the Rams a 13-7 lead at halftime and a 21-7 lead with 3:39 in the third quarter.
‘What if South doesn’t lose those two players?’
Cleveland tacked on its final score with 6:01 in the fourth quarter. That’s when South’s offense finally got clicking. A 9-yard run by Wells followed by three consecutive completions from Carroll, including a 44-yard catch and run to Tony Alston and a 24-yard touchdown to Jaquain Smith. That made it 28-13 with 4:57. The Trojans hoped slippery conditions might help them recover another kickoff, but Cleveland fell on the ball and was able to run out the clock and secure the win.
‘What if they had more time?’
“What if’s” are enough to drive any fan crazy, but Riggsbee knows it doesn’t do any good to dwell on those. He’ll work on getting his team ready for Union Pines this week.
“We’ve got a couple of guys banged up and a couple of starters that are going to be out,” Riggsbee said. “I’m proud of the guys that have stepped up and played in their place. We’ve just got to get over this game, get through the weekend and focus on Union Pines. The only thing that matters right now is beating Union Pines.”