Senior quarterback Holton Ahlers celebrated his 18th birthday in style on Friday night, but perhaps no one enjoyed D.H. Conley’s playoff opener more than Will Whitehurst.
The senior kicker booted a career-long 48-yard field goal to cap a 46-point first half, and the fifth-seeded Vikings dismantled 12th-seeded Northern Guilford 59-7 on a frigid and breezy night to advance to the second round of the Class 3-AA playoffs.
Whitehurst, by far the state’s leader in point-after kicks with 78 coming into Friday, had attempted only four field goals this season and made two. His career-best was 38 yards, but with 3.8 seconds left in the first half and Conley at the Knighthawks’ 31, head coach Nate Conner sent out his field goal unit.
With the wind behind him, Whitehurst blasted his left-footed kick just a few feet over the crossbar, sending the Vikings to the half inspired and comfortably ahead.
“I was so excited.” Whitehurst said. “I was just happy to get the chance. … It’s not a one-man show. Everyone really matters, even the kicker sometimes.”
Conner knows he may need Whitehurst in a more pressure-packed situation as the playoff competition stiffens, so he was gratified to see the field goal team execute under the less-than-ideal conditions of a soggy field and hand-numbing cold. The Vikings will be on the road in the second round against fourth-seeded Eastern Guilford, which defeated Hillside 31-12 on Friday.
“That’s huge for his confidence; it’s huge for everybody’s confidence,” Conner said. “The deeper this thing goes it’s going to come to one of those situations. It’s going to come to one of those field goals or those crucial moments, and it’s good for his confidence, the whole operation.”
Before his field goal, Whitehurst stayed busy kicking PATs with Ahlers directing Conley to scores on its first four possessions and six of its first seven. Ahlers threw five touchdown passes — four to junior C.J. Johnson — giving him 57 for the year and also ran for a score. It was just a typical night for the future ECU quarterback but not a bad way to spend his 18th birthday.
“It was a blast,” Ahlers said. “I’ll definitely remember this for the rest of my life.”
The Knighthawks (6-6) also will remember their long trip to eastern North Carolina, but it will go down as a nightmare. Northern Guilford’s quarterback tandem of Jakob Lenard and Tyler Flippen were harassed and hammered all night, missing on their first 10 passes then fumbling the ball away after the first completion. Combined, the two juniors completed just 6 of 29 passes with two interceptions.
The Vikings recorded also four sacks, several more hurries and knocked Lenard out of the game in the second quarter.
“The pressure they were able to get all night was just phenomenal,” Conner said.
Senior linebackers Alex Nease and Ryder Bennett, senior lineman Tyquan Satterthwaite, junior tackle Reed Chandler and junior defensive end Blake Mizelle spearheaded a defense that held the Knighthawks to 37 yards in the first half and minus-21 yards rushing on the night. Northern Guilford managed just five first downs and 139 total yards — 76 of which came on a touchdown pass from Flippen to Justin Julian on the game’s final offensive play..
“Everyone just did their part,” Nease said. “The D-line and linebackers, we just added tremendous pressure. We got out to our zones, and the DBs just played lights out all night.”
Nease gave them a hand on the second play of the second half, snaring a Flippen pass and rumbling 42 yards to put Conley up 53-0.
“I’ve wanted one all year,” said Nease, who returned a fumble for a score earlier this year against Rocky Mount. “The running back went out to the flats, and then I saw the slant coming, so I drifted back and he just threw it right to me. I just ran as fast as I could to the corner of the end zone.”
Nyck Brown also came up with a second-half interception, returning it from midfield to the two. Mitchell Hofler scored on the next play.
Conley ran just seven offensive plays in the second half under a running clock, enforced after a 42-point margin.
The Vikings had that and more by halftime, rolling up a 376 total yards with Ahlers completing 18 of 32 passes for 248 yards and running 11 times for 94 yards. He tossed scoring passes of 23, 9 and 44 yards to Johnson and also bulled in from 4 yards in the first quarter for a 29-0 lead.
Ahlers added touchdown passes of 9 yards to Charlie Dees and 14 yards to Johnson in the second quarter.
“We knew that our offense is knocking on all cylinders right now, and our defense playing well too,” Ahlers said. “ … We’re confident that we can beat anyone, whether it’s the one seed or whatever seed it is we’re going in thinking that we’re the best team out there. We’re going to stay humble but hungry at the same time. We’re just really excited to go on the road next week. … We’re excited to have another week together.”