By Josh Kraeger
Special to the Daily
The North Clayton Eagles and Creekside Seminoles battled for second place in Region 4-AAAA Friday night at Southern Crescent Stadium and it was the Eagles who came up big with a 21-0 victory, securing second place and guaranteeing home-field advantage in the first round.
The two powerhouse programs traded blows from the beginning, with freshman phenomenon Evan Berry and the Seminoles taking the ball to start the game. Evan and twin brother Elliot Berry took turns going at the Eagles' defensive unit, with Elliot running for 14 yards on four carries and Evan running for one first down and passing for another. However, their efforts yielded little as Creekside was forced to punt and North Clayton took over.
The Eagles lost sophomore running back LaDarrius Mathis to a shoulder injury two weeks earlier, and changes in their game plan were evident.
North Clayton used freshman running back Christopher Weems alongside senior running back Michael Ross to establish a dominant run game early and often. Weems had five carries for 50 yards on the first three North Clayton possessions, while Ross was off to a slow start with three carries for three yards and a fumble lost.
Fueled by Weems' back-to-back 31 and 11 yard carries, Ross redeemed himself with a nine-yard burst out of the backfield for a touchdown. After a successful point-after attempt, North Clayton held a 7-0 lead with 1:01 remaining in the opening quarter.
After a three-and-out by Creekside, North Clayton wasted no time, gaining 20 yards on two carries by Weems and 28 yards on two carries by Ross. The dynamic duo set junior quarterback Dennis Johnson up for a play-action pass that was caught by junior Khalil Stinson for a 26-yard touchdown. After another successful point-after attempt, the Eagles' held a more comfortable lead at 14-0 with 7:15 remaining in the second quarter.
Berry avoided disaster on Seminoles' ensuing drive, as one of his passes was nearly picked off by the North Clayton secondary. The relief was short-lived, as Creekside's offense was unable to produce a first down and had to punt once more.
The Eagles' offense was threatening to score again, but the Seminoles' secondary came through with an interception on the goal line by junior safety Josh Holsey.
Creekside was unable to capitalize on the turnover and punted the ball after gaining 37 yards on eight plays.
The Seminoles' defense came through again on the ensuing possession, but this time it was senior defensive back Darren Dye-Harriel who intercepted Johnsons pass deep in Creekside territory.
Berry looked shaky on the subsequent possession, completing one pass before nearly getting his second pass intercepted by North Clayton senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera. Berry wasn't so lucky on his next attempt. The following play featured Herrera pressuring Berry and North Clayton junior linebacker Elijah Redmond intercepting Berry's pass.
The rest of the second quarter was a defensive struggle between the two squads, with neither team giving way.
The two teams once again traded possessions before Creekside took the momentum with a 17-play drive that lasted over six minutes and yielded 93 yards. However, the Eagle defense came up big in the red-zone, holding the Seminoles on four straight plays to regain possession.
North Clayton's offense dominated the rest of the game, running down the clock, and running the ball down the field as they had done all game. Johnson threw a six-yard touchdown pass to Ross with 32 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and for the third straight year, North Clayton clinched home-field advantage for the first round of the state playoffs.
"It was a good win for us, helped us out big time because it gave us home-field advantage for the third straight year," Herrera said.
Ross finished with 115 yards on six carries with one touchdown and two fumbles lost. He also had one reception for six yards and a touchdown. Weems finished with 124 yards on 20 carries. Herrera paced the North Clayton defense with 11 tackles and one pass defense.
Evan Berry had 11 completions on 24 attempts for 156 and one interception. He also ran the ball seven times for 56 yards. Dye-Harriel led the Seminole defense with one interception, one fumble recovery and two pass defenses.
The Eagles now look to face a difficult road to the state championship, but feel like there is room for improvement.
"We can work on holding blocks longer and keeping the defense on the field," Ross said. With the loss of Mathis at running back, the Eagles have been forced to step up as a team and challenge each other to become difference makers.
"Everyone's going to be a difference-maker out there and everybody needs to step up and take it serious," Herrera said. "For some of us it's going to be our last time out there, but the underclassmen need to step it up too."
North Clayton (9-1) will start their playoff run at Southern Crescent Stadium next weekend against the number three seed from region 2-AAAA. The Seminoles, third in Region 4-AAAA, will face off against the second seed in Region 2-AAAA next weekend.
"Everybody's trying to win a championship, trying to win a ring," Herrera said. "We just have to go out there and play hard every down."