Holton Ahlers dropped to one knee, quickly popped up and tossed the ball to a referee.
With the goal of winning a conference championship in his senior season sealed, the talented quarterback was ready to celebrate with his D.H. Conley teammates and coaches. But it didn’t take him long to start looking ahead.
“The feeling’s unreal. That’s what we set out to do, to win a conference championship, but our goal now is to move forward,” Ahlers said Friday night after matching a state record with nine touchdown passes and adding two more on the ground in a 78-43 demolition of South Central in a showdown for the Eastern Carolina Conference 3-A/4-A Conference crown.
“We’ve got the conference championship,” Ahlers said. “Our goal now is to win next week and to go to the state championship. That’s our goal. It’s been that since July. We haven’t changed it. Even after the first loss, our seniors came together and we said we’re not going to lose at Conley again.”
The Vikings, who fell to Northeastern in overtime in their season-opener, will carry a 10-game win streak into the Class 3-A playoffs next week. South Central, which had won seven straight, fell to 9-2 and awaits its seeding and first-round matchup in the 4-A playoffs.
“We wanted that conference championship,” South Central head coach Andy Tew said. “We came up short of that. We lost to the best team in the conference … so now we get to sting for a couple of days.
“… We’ve got a chance to go into these playoffs and make some noise and see what happens.” he said. “It’s playoff time. It’s got to be exciting and fun. You put your wrinkles in and either travel somewhere you’ve never been or have somebody you don’t know come to you. We’ve just got to make it fun and enjoy the fact that we were nine and two, and now we get a chance to go into the third part of the season.”
For a half on Friday before an energized and packed South Central stadium, the Falcons kept pace with the Vikings in a duel of two offensive juggernauts who came in averaging more than 51 points per game.
Quarterback Dexter McDuffie, one of 12 South Central seniors honored before the game, threw three first-half touchdowns and scored on a pair of electric 80-yard runs. South Centra built a 21-7 lead with 4:41 left in the first period and led 28-21 early in the second quarter but simply could not keep up with Ahlers and the rest of the Vikings.
Conley had 500 yards by halftime and finished with 861 — after losing 15 yards on kneel-downs on the final two snaps. South Central had 427 yards in the first two quarters but was limited to just 57 yards the second half.
McDuffie did not play the final series of the third quarter or the entire fourth quarter after being ejected with his second personal foul penalty. He finished 13 of 21 for 215 yards and rushed 14 times for 208 yards but had minus-1 yard rushing in the second half.
“Once we started being physical and started blitzing more and driving the O linemen back in the holes, the quarterback had nowhere to go,” Conley senior linebacker Alex Nease said. “We put a lot of pressure on him, and he couldn’t get the passes off.”
Even when the Falcons pressured Ahlers, he scrambled and found open receivers. He finished 26 of 36 passing for a career-high 551 yards — the 11th most in a single game in state history — and rushed 12 times for 131 yards.
Four of Ahlers’ TD tosses found junior wide receiver C.J. Johnson, who had 13 catches for 288 yards — the 13th-highest single-game mark in the state. Johnson had touchdown grabs of 39 and 10 yards in the second quarter and 56 and 37 yards in the third period. His final TD came on a fourth-and-23 from the 37 after Ahlers rolled to his left and fired downfield before being hit by two South Central pursuers.
“It’s just chemistry,” Ahlers said. “It’s just working all the time. We worked all offseason. Our goal is to be the best duo in the state. We set out to do that every single day. … We try to be the best that we can be, and tonight we’re conference champions.”
Ahlers also threw touchdown passes of 35, 41 and 33 yards to Quay Bridges and capped his evening with 28-yarder to sophomore Charlie Dees, who made a leaping catch near the goal line.
Ahlers scored on runs 2 and 41 yards.
“He was phenomenal,” Conley coach Nate Conner said. “ He’s had a tough couple of weeks (because of the death of a childhood friend), and he doesn’t let it faze him. He comes back to football, and that kid is a football player. He is a special young man to coach, he’s a special teammate, and he just came out and performed and showed what he was capable of doing tonight.”
Conley needed Ahlers and his entire cast to counter what the Falcons delivered early. The two teams combined for 17 plays of 20 yards or more in the first half — South Central had nine — and put up 927 total yards and 93 points. No scoring drive in the first two quarter needed more than four plays.
The Vikings, down 21-7, pulled even at 21-21 on an Ahlers pass to Bridges on the final play of the first quarter, then surged ahead 42-28 on consecutive scoring passes to Johnson. Conley led 50-36, but McDuffie lofted a 10-yard TD pass on fourth down to Nazir Monroe-Smith on the final play of the half.
The Falcons threatened only once in the second half, driving to the 24 before turning the ball over on downs.
“They came out with a lot of momentum,” Ahlers said of South Central. “We knew they were going to get their best push of the whole season just because of the hype of the game. Our guys have been in those shoes before in big games. We have playmakers, and we have guys up front that can make big plays.”
Conley delivered the likely knockout blow on the first possessions of the third quarter. Ahlers teamed up with Johnson for 15 yards on third-and-10 from the 10, then four plays later found Matthew Rostar along the left sideline for a 45-yard score and 57-43 lead.
South Central picked up just three first downs and punted three times in the second half.
“I’m so proud of those guys over there at D.H. Conley and how hard they played,”Conley coach Nate Conner said. “They faced adversity early, they didn’t falter, they kept pushing, they held their offense to a shutout in the second half, and we kept going offensively. Our guys just rose to the occasion. They knew how much hard work they had put into this and they were excited about the opportunity, and I couldn’t be happier for them.”