RED SPRINGS — Emotions ran high and momentum swung back and forth in the battle of two teams trying to stay one game behind the leaders in the Three Rivers Conference.
In the final quarter, it was two turnovers from Red Springs that was its demise as Whiteville came away with a 23-22 win on the road Thursday to stay a game back of the trio of teams leading the league.
“I think they played their hearts out,” Red Springs coach Ron Cook said. “It was the little mistakes made here and there that led to the big plays on the dive, but I didn’t think we played bad at all, especially defensively. On offense, we can’t make bad plays and turn the ball over in crucial times.”
Entering the fourth, Red Springs (4-3) held a 22-14 lead and punted away to start the final stanza. Whiteville (3-4) responded with a nine-play 73-yard drive that Keshawn Bellamy capped off with a two-yard run to cut the Red Devils lead to 22-20 with 7:57 left.
The ball and momentum bounced Whiteville’s way three plays later when Red Springs quarterback Toddrick Lockhart dumped a pass off to Nichorie West in the flat and on his way to the ground the ball popped out and the Wolfpack recovered. Taking over in Red Springs territory, the Whiteville offense marched inside the red zone to set up Will Hinson’s game-winning 27-yard field goal that he sneaked inside the far upright.
“We had a chance to go up and put it out of reach with an extra point so that was huge,” Cook said. “That just can’t happen.”
Looking to take back the lead, Red Springs started with a short field at its own 41-yard line, but four plays into the drive Lockhart was picked off by Cameron Smith on a pass intended for Eric Graham with 1:47 left.
Entering the fourth, Red Springs had protected the ball and hadn’t turn it over.
The loss puts a big hit to Red Springs’ conference title aspirations with two losses in the head-to-head against teams that currently sit ahead of them in the standings, but Cook said the focus stays on his team and winning out.
“It’s rough losing a game like this, but I think we can still pull things together and possibly win these last four games,” he said. “This is one of the toughest and hardest games we’ve played all year and we came out on the wrong end.”
A staple of the defense under Cook is takeaways and the Red Devils recovered three fumbles and had one interception in the game. On its first play of each half, Whiteville turned the ball over and the result was a Red Springs touchdown.
To start the game, a fumbled handoff from Monchovia Gaffney to Bradley Pridgen was fallen on West to set up the Red Devils’ first score on a Graham touchdown run form five yards out to give Red Springs the early 8-0 lead. In the second half, the pitch from Gaffney to Bellamy was grabbed by Mickey Bell, who took it 41 yards for the touchdown to tie the game at 14-all.
Whiteville running back Jamario Norton rushed for 128 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown running the dive out of the triple option that Red Springs adjusted and readjusted against the whole game.
Red Springs hosts West Columbus and Whiteville hosts St. Pauls next Friday.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.