Photos and article from Kai Jones
Princeton is onto the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2A playoffs for the first time since 2014 after defeating Kinston, 41-31, Friday night in Princeton.
This is the first time in the Gaster era that Princeton has made it to the third round. The seventh-year head coach has had plenty of success with four conference titles in six years, a 55-22 record, but there seemed to be a wall between round two and round three.
Despite a 26-4 record the last three years, it seemed like calamity followed the program once in the playoffs; whether it was multiple uncharacteristic turnovers, three-hour bus rides, or unfavorable matchups with teams too early — the Bulldogs hadn’t caught a break yet.
A first quarter Jaydon Brooks fumble seemed to reek of November’s past against Kinston — as the Vikings (8-4) recovered and scored three plays later on an Antwon Giggetts 15-yard run. But the Bulldogs (11-0) never folded as Leyton Pearce blocked the point after to keep it a 7 point game.
“They’re not getting caught up in the mistakes,” Gaster said of his team’s ability to fight through adversity. “We kind of understand that mistakes are going to happen — we certainly don’t want them to, but that’s a part of the game. But how do you react to it? Are you going to dwell on it and let it ruin the rest of your game? Or let’s forget about them, pick each other up, and keep it moving — and that’s exactly what they did tonight.”
Princeton started the scoring with a 27-yard run from Christian Perris with 9:28 left in the first quarter to take a 6-0 lead after a botched hold on the extra point. Kinston responded with a 28-yard pass from Messiah Semndaia to Corion Baker with 8 minutes left.
After the Brooks fumble and Kinston score, Princeton evened it up at the beginning of the second quarter with a three-yard punch in from Brooks with 11:54 left in the first half. Kinston punted on the next drive. Princeton retook the lead with a Paul Edens two-yard push into the end zone with 5:43 left in the half.
Kinston tried to milk the clock on the next drive as they scored on a Kasim Morgan two-yard run with 1:23 left. Pearce once again blocked the point after to preserve a 20-19 lead, which led to the Vikings not attempting another kick all night.
The attempt to not give Princeton the ball back before half became futile as Paul Edens found Christian Perris at the 3-yard line for a 30-yard pass over two defenders with 1.8 seconds left. Brooks punched it in with the horn sounding off to give Princeton a 27-19 lead at halftime.
The Vikings came out of the locker room with a 15-play, 74-yard drive, capped off by a Giggetts three-yard run with 6:01 left in the third quarter. Kinston opted to go for two and we’re stonewalled by Princeton to keep the game at 27-25.
Momentum seemed to be with the Vikings as Brooks got injured on a 2nd and 15 yard run on the next drive. Kinston’s fans were roaring as the Bulldogs faced a 3rd and 12 without their premiere back.
However, Edens silenced the crowd with a fifteen-yard throw to Peyton Mitchell. Princeton scored three plays later on a Perris 12-yard run with 2 minutes left in the third quarter for a 34-25 lead.
Edens put his team on his back as he ran the ball 17 times for 166 yards and two touchdowns, as well as completed his only two pass attempts for 59 yards and made 14 tackles on defense. Edens said his memories of playoff past were with him as he played.
“All I could think about was not letting it be our last game,” Edens said. “The pain I saw those seniors go through, the work we put in, and everything I learned from those seniors has led up to this point.”
Kinston responded as the third-quarter buzzer sounded with a 68-yard pass from Semndaia to Calvin Holloway. The Princeton defense stoned Kinston on the two-point attempt to leave it 34-31 heading into the fourth quarter.
Edens led the Bulldogs down the field again and finished off a 5-minute drive with a four-yard run for a touchdown to make it 41-31 with 7 minutes left.
The Vikings drove the ball down to the two-yard line but hit the wall on fourth down as Khalyb Robinson sacked Semndaia down on fourth and goal to give the Bulldogs the ball and ultimately the game.
The Bulldogs will host Nash Central in the third round on Nov. 19.