ROWLAND — South Robeson football coach Clay Jernigan saw his team grow up in the second half of its game against in-county foe St. Pauls on Friday.
The growth was evident in the game, but also showed how much the Mustangs had transformed in a year in a situation like it was to the Bulldogs.
“Us being so young and they started pounding us, I saw our heads drop a little. But we got a break finally and the heads popped up. I think we grew up a little bit,” he said. “I told them in the huddle that ‘last year I would’ve saw a third quarter where they would’ve put 40 or 50 on us, y’all just didn’t quit and went toe-to-toe with them .’”
Despite falling short in the home Three Rivers Conference battle to St. Pauls, South Robeson clawed back in the second half that had changes in momentum right from the beginning moments. The growth that Jernigan saw wasn’t just noticed on the Mustangs’ sidelines during St. Pauls’ 42-26 win, but something that kept St. Pauls coach Ernest King a little uneasy until late.
“Those guys, even though they didn’t win this game, they played to another level that you might not be used to seeing South Robeson play at, and Clay is doing a great job with those guys,” King said. “Last year a team like that would’ve folded, but this year they have a different mentality.”
Twice in the third quarter St. Pauls (2-2, 2-0 TRC) distanced itself from South Robeson (1-3, 1-1 TRC), and just when the wheels looked to fall off the Mustangs’ wagon, it found a way to stay in the game.
The Bulldogs opened up a 22-6 lead with five minutes left in the third quarter on a Caleb Inman touchdown run, and then the madness started to ensue. The following kickoff was returned 57 yards for a touchdown by Jamearos McLeod, making it a 10-point game.
The gap grew back to 24 points when Inman scored his third rushing touchdown of the game on the next drive that went 57 yards in 49 seconds. St. Pauls recovered the onside kick and quarterback Noah Wheeler connected with Antwain Hoskins on the next play for a 40-yard touchdown toss to cap off 28 points combined by the two teams in just over a minute of game time.
South Robeson used its first drive of the fourth quarter, that came off a Darrius Brown interception, to go 77 yards for on 12 plays and finish with Darius Wright scoring on a four-yard touchdown. The senior running back followed up his three-touchdown performance against West Columbus with three touchdowns on Friday and 171 yards rushing — 165 that came in the second half. This while he and his teammates played on both sides of the ball against a deep St. Pauls roster.
“I knew I couldn’t let my teammates down or give up for my team,” Wright said. “We’ve got to keep it going and do everything right. We’ve really progressed and we never gave up. We have a big heart and we could never give up.”
Much like the Bulldogs did in the third quarter, the Mustangs got the ball right back on an onside kick after the Wright score and found the end zone on one play when Wright went 47 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to 36-36 with 6:35 left.
“A lot of people make a big play and it pumps you up and we had a lot of big breaks that pumped us up,” Jernigan said. “It gives you your second win. We’ve just got to learn to stay in there.”
Wheeler and St. Pauls responded with a drive that found the end zone to lock the game, that included two fourth-down conversions and a third-down conversion, and was capped off with a two-yard run by the reigning Robeson County offensive player of the year.
“We’ve got to learn to turnaround and close teams out instead of letting them hang around,” King said.
Inman rushed for 184 yards and three touchdowns for the Bulldogs, and on the defensive side of the ball Kalvin Carpenter had a fumble recovery and an interception.
South Robeson travels to Whiteville next week.
“It doesn’t get any easier,” Jernigan said. “I hope we grew up from tonight and respond next week.”
St. Pauls plays another in-county matchup when it hosts Fairmont.
Jonathan Bym can be reached at 910-816-1977. Follow him on Twitter @Jonathan_Bym.