Murphy used its size, aggression, and discipline to blow out Pamlico County in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A football championship Saturday at Wallace Wade Stadium on the Duke University campus.
It was the Bulldogs’ 12th appearance in the clash for the crown and ninth state championship, which they last won in 2016. It was Pamlico’s first appearance in a title game.
The game sized up as a classic showdown between the unstoppable force — Pamlico County averaged 43.6 points per game this season behind a pair of 1,000-yard rushers — throwing itself against the immovable object — Murphy surrendered just 86 points in conference play.
Pamlico’s high-octane running game — they piled up 4,681 yards on the ground coming into the game — failed to muster an effective scoring attack. Murphy’s aggressive defense alternately bottled up and battered Pamlico’s offense, knocking the wind right out of the Hurricanes, who had 318 total yards. Game MVP K.J. Allen led a blistering Murphy offense with 153 yards and four touchdowns on 18 carries. Murphy had 521 yards total offense, 479 of those on the ground.
Murphy used two female kickers in the game — Annie-Kate Dalton, and Kaitlynn Wheaton. They were not the first females to play in a state championship game. Snow Brenner of High Point Central was a kicker for High Point Central in a 38-34 loss to Bertie in 1995. She later played soccer at Duke. Kinston’s Bailey Blake was the second female to score when she played in the 2015 title.
MURPHY, GENTRY ADD ANOTHER
Coach David Gentry has a generational history of bringing championship football crowns to Murphy. Defensive end Hunter Shope, the Bulldogs’ defensive player of the game, is the son of James Shope, who was a two-way tackle on Gentry’s 1987 state title team. He now has 406 career victories, seven shy of the state record.
“This is a special team for me and Murphy. This is my eighth one but it never gets old,” Gentry said. “It’s just so exciting to be here.”
Will the 73-year-old football titan return next season?
“If I told you there wouldn’t be any suspense, would there,” Gentry said. “I’m always coming back until I tell you I’m not.”
The state record is within reach, “but I’ve never been one to chase numbers,” Gentry said, admitting he has thought about winning championships.
The Bulldogs marked their territory early with a bold statement by defensive back Micah Nelson. He recovered a bouncing fumble by the Hurricanes’ Savone Tutt at the Pamlico 34-yard line and dashed into the end zone for a 6-0 lead with just 17 seconds off the clock. Dalton missed the extra point.
“That was crazy. That was over the top,” said Nelson, Murphy’s offensive player of the game. “I was out of breath and everyone wanted to celebrate.” That turnover set the tempo for the game, he said.
On Pamlico’s next possession Murphy linebacker Chase Roberts put a lick on Tutt, who coughed the ball up again. Cornerback Reid Beal recovered for the Bulldogs at the Pamlico 34.
Murphy didn’t allow the miscue to go unpunished. Allen, a 230-pound fullback who shredded the Pamlico defense for a 16-yard rush on the ensuing drive, bulled through defenders for a 5-yard touchdown at 8:28 of the first quarter.
Nelson, who goes under center on offense, hit running back Devonte Murray for a 2-point conversion pass, and a 14-0 lead. Beal zipped into an empty left corner of the end zone and pulled down an 18-yard TD pass from Nelson to put Murphy up 21-7.
Running back Ray Rathburn ignited a second-half Murphy touchdown spree at 7:53 of the third quarter. He shook off several would-be tacklers on an 11-yard run up the gut to build the Bulldogs lead to 28-7.
Allen pushed, bowled, and muscled his way through a trove of Pamlico defenders for a 6-yard touchdown rush and 35-7 lead at 2:41 of the third quarter.
Murphy went up 41-14 at 12:47 of the fourth quarter when Murray blew past the defense on a 46-yard TD scamper. Wheaton’s kick failed.
Murray rushed 31 yards for another TD at 7:47 of the fourth quarter, but Dalton’s kick failed, leaving the score at 47-20.
Allen scored off a 22-yard burst at 6:59 to put Murphy up 54-20, and an 18-yard bolt at 3:43 for the final 60-27 lead.
The Hurricanes faced adversity this year, not the least of which was the devastation of Hurricane Florence. Senior wide receiver George Jones said this cemented a bond among players.
The team has been playing together since the pee-wee leagues in a tight-knit community that loves its sports.
“After the hurricane, it brought us all together,” Jones said.
After Pamlico’s disastrous first two possessions, and trailing 14-0, the Hurricanes finally engineered a sustained drive on its third try, covering 66 yards on a dozen plays in five and a half minutes.
Quarterback Lamont Murray capped the 12-yard march with a nifty 7-yard burst around left end, eluding the grasp of one defender on the way. Daniel Fuentes’ kick made it 14-7. Murray had two rushing touchdowns, a pair of passing scores, 79 yards rushing and 165 yards passing. He was named Pamlico’s offensive player of the game.
Pamlico couldn’t maintain a consistent rhythm but had its shining moments.
Jones gave Pamlico its second score, tucking in a pass from Murray, outrunning the coverage and racing 42 yards to paydirt with 56 seconds remaining in the third quarter, and now trailing 35-14.
Murray narrowed the deficit to 41-20 with a 17-yard race to the end zone, diving to put the ball across the line at 9:41 of the fourth quarter. The conversion failed.
Murray followed up by connecting with La-monti Lewis at 4:06. Lewis made a leaping 18-yard touchdown grab to move the score to 54-27.
Linebacker William Lovick had nine tackles, six of them unassisted. He was named Pamlico defensive player of the game.
“We do have talent here in Pamlico, and we just want people to understand that we’re not just the small underdog all the time. We don’t want to be considered the underdog,” coach Torrey Nowell said. “We want to be considered the big dog at some point.”