Wildcats stunned in playoff opener

Published | Nov 4, 2023

By Jacob Zimmerman

Valdese- High hopes of another deep postseason run for the Draughn football team came to a halt Friday night when they met their match against Corvian Community.

Despite a hot start, the Wildcats 38-28 loss cuts them from the NCHSAA 1A State Playoff
Bracket, and ends an eight-win year for Draughn, after making it to last year’s 1A Western Regional finals.

“They graduate the winningest class in school history,” said Draughn head coach Chris Powell
when asked about his seniors. “The things that they’ve accomplished on the field, the records
individually and as a team that they’re a part of, it was a special route with this senior class and
they’re truly going to be missed.”

Like many times this season, Draughn’s defense got off the field in their first action, forcing a
three and out on the opening Corvian Community possession.

The Wildcats did not make an early statement on offense either, eventually turning the ball over
on downs after a six-play drive that featured two first downs and a long sack.

A first score appeared seemingly out of nowhere in a bizarre screen pass set up from Corvian
Community on their next possession.

Instead of the Cardinals finding the endzone, with 7:15 to go in the first, Draughn junior Alex Wright scooped up a fallen backward pass in the flat and ran it back for a score after a few seconds of brief confusion on the field.

With a 7-0 lead, the Wildcats defense made their presence felt again with back-to-back
takeaways. A Corvian Community pass across the middle of the field got picked off from senior
safety Connor Pinkerton at the 5:22 mark.

This stop set up the Wildcats offense near midfield on their own 48-yard line, and Draughn
found themselves punting shortly after. Instead of giving the ball back to the Cardinals, a
botched attempt to secure a poor punt allowed the Wildcats to recover on their opponent’s
41-yard line.

With the defense and special teams guiding the way, Draughn got up to a 15-0 lead on the very
next play as senior RB Nigel Dula broke loose along the left side for the best run of his night. A
pass to Pinkerton tacked on the two-point conversion with 3:21 left.

Corvian Community began to shift their offensive focus toward the passing game after several
rushes up the middle failed to move the needle.

Starting their attack on Draughn’s 37-yard line, due to a monster kick return, paved the way for an eight-play touchdown drive, as the Cardinals junior RB Cam Johnson punched in a 1-yard rush to make it 15-7 with 40 seconds to go in the quarter.

Difficulties finishing drives became prevalent for the Wildcats in their next opportunity. Draughn
marched the ball down the field thanks to a 32-yard streaking run from Dula and a great pocket
escape throw from senior QB Eli Tillery to junior Jacob Mull for a first down.

That all went to waste after Tillery made another great escape from the grasp of several enemy d-linemen, but controversially fumbled the football at the end of the run, ending the drive in a turnover.

The following play proved to be a momentum shifter, and one that gutted the Draughn

The screen pass this time led to a Cardinals touchdown, as junior WR Esias Caves cut
all the way back across the field twice, using his blockers on the way to a gashing 72-yard
receiving TD, coming from junior QB AJ Jackson Jr. The score cut the lead to just one point with
9:20 to go in the second quarter.

Sacks and penalties ruined the next quick drive for Draughn and a 20-yard field goal from
Cooper Peterson of Corvian Community put the Cardinals in the lead for the first time on the
night, 17-15.

In a matter of minutes, the Draughn offense regained control. A 40-yard kick return from Dula
created nice field positioning for the Wildcats, and he then found the endzone for the second
time in the evening when Tillery completed the play-action pass for a 44-yard touchdown, to go up 21-17 with 3:10 left in the first half.

“Nigel’s a special young man. He’s powerful, he’s strong, he’s athletic, quick, everything…he
had a great night tonight…truly happy for the success he had here at Draughn High School.”

A high-flying, back-and-forth offensive battle was in full swing, and the game continued that way on CC’s next chance.

The 2-minute drill successfully kicked into effect for the Cardinals as they ushered their way down the field with pass and option calls. Despite a big hit from Pinkerton, a 20-yard strike was held on, advancing the ball inside the red zone. An option reverse sweep run from junior Noah Best found the end zone from 10 yards out, making it 24-21 seconds before the half.

Draughn started the second half the way they started on offense throughout most of the game,
from essentially midfield. A smash-mouth drive ensued, featuring numerous first downs from Dula, before finding his third TD of the night on a 5-yard run.

With a 28-24 lead at 7:54 left in the third, this ended up being the beginning of the end for the Wildcats.
Draughn recovered a fumble on the first play of CC’s next offensive stint, but the battle of
attrition was won by the Cardinals when Draughn QB Eli Tillery left the contest due to injury.

Once Corvian Community got the ball back, the floodgates opened up. A 15-yard pass from
Jackson Jr. to freshman Ricky Moore took back a 31-28 lead with 3:27 left in the third.

Sophomore QB Dante Tillery dialed up a nice response in a pressure moment for the backup.
However, the 40-yard pass downfield to Pinkerton was called back due to a holding penalty,
effectively ending their drive in a punt.

Once the Cardinals took over, a 51-yard burst from Caves went the distance to take a
commanding 38-28 lead with 30 seconds left in the third quarter.

At the start of the 4th quarter, it was obvious that the Wildcats needed a few efficient drives to
save the day, but they just didn’t come to fruition.

A drive that featured a nice stiff arm first down run from Dula, and a 17-yard keeper from Tillery up the middle came to an end after a strip sack fumble.

Draughn nearly caught another break in special teams on a high snap, but the Corvian
Community punter made a one-handed snag before getting the boot off. The following
possession ended on downs, and the Cardinals ran out the clock, handing the Wildcats a
stinging season-ending loss.

“We didn’t do our job. And that’s what it boiled down to. We knew on film that they were a heck of an athletic team. They’re well coached, they block well, they’re quick, they’re fast, and we just didn’t do our assignments on both sides of the football. We had some success early, and I feel like we kinda got a little complacent and so that’s something that falls on me as a head coach.”

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