The Walnut Ridge High School football team took extra joy Sept. 22 in gaining possession of the bell awarded to the winner of its longtime City League-South Division rivalry against Eastmoor Academy.
“The way we lost against them the last two years, the guys weren’t coming out of here on the short end again this year,” Scots coach Byron Mattox said. “Like always, though, it was never going to come easy. That’s the way our games always are.”
Donning the No. 11 jersey usually worn by his cousin, Jaiwon Johnson, who suffered a season-ending broken leg last week, senior linebacker Justin Vance made his second interception with 27 seconds remaining as Walnut Ridge held on to edge Eastmoor 20-14 at Griffin Field.
Eastmoor (2-3, 0-1) had rallied from a 20-0 deficit and, after a defensive stop, gained possession at its 35 with 1:25 remaining.
But on a third-and-20 play, Vance picked off Marquise Laster over the middle and the Scots (5-0, 1-0) avenged 14-8 and 14-12 losses to the Warriors the past two years.
“My cousin just had surgery (Sept. 21), and I wanted to do something to honor him, so I wore his number for this game,” Vance said. “Except for going to the playoffs and winning the City, getting the bell back was one of our biggest goals this season. This is a really fierce rivalry.”
Vance’s second interception marked the fifth turnover of the night for Eastmoor. A muffed punt by the Warriors set up Walnut Ridge’s first score.
“Our defense was playing lights out up until the end,” Mattox said. “I really believe that our defense is one of the best around. We’ve been doing a great job creating turnovers, and that definitely was the difference.”
Qian Magwood returned an interception of an Alex Ushry pass 55 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first half to give Walnut Ridge the seemingly safe 20-0 lead. Freshman Jerrell Harrison created the pressure that led to the interception.
“I was reading his eyes the whole way,” Magwood said. “I knew it was coming my way and I had to make a play. I knew nobody was going to catch me. I saw the end zone the whole way.”
Eastmoor drove 75 yards, capped by a Laster 5-yard touchdown pass to Savon Edwards Jr. with 8:47 left, and an Edwards two-point conversion run made it 20-8.
With Walnut Ridge apparently salting away the win, Laster connected with Kenny Lawrence on a short sideline pass and Lawrence took it 70 yards to the end zone, cutting the deficit to 20-14 with 3:02 left.
“We showed a lot of heart, and we actually had the momentum at the end, but you can’t turn the ball over that many times against a team of that caliber and expect to win,” Eastmoor coach Jim Miranda said.
“We put ourselves in a hole early on with the muffled punt, and we were playing catch-up the whole way. The pick-six was huge. Our defense played reasonably well. They just made one legitimate scoring drive on us, but, again, the turnovers killed us.”
Xzavier Collins had one of the four Scots interceptions.
Sincere Staples picked up 88 hard-earned yards on 26 carries with a 5-yard touchdown run to pace the Walnut Ridge offense. The state-ranked Scots are shooting for their first playoff appearance since 2009.
“We’ve got to get better on offense,” Mattox said. “The defense has been holding us in all year, and that was true again tonight.”
==========Team 1 2 3 4 Final WALNUT RIDGE 6 14 0 0 20 EASTMOOR
0 0 0 14 14