From well before kickoff to long after the final horn, Holton Ahlers and his D.H. Conley senior teammates will remember their final regular-season home game.
Not only did the Vikings manhandle arch-rival J.H. Rose 49-13 in an Eastern Carolina 3-A/4-A Cnference game on Friday night, but they extended their winning streak to eight and capped off a perfect home record with Ahlers directing the show. And what a show it was for an energetic, standing-room-only crowd, with fireworks, smoke and music ushering in “blackout” night complete with new black uniforms to the presentation of the MaxPreps Rivalry Week trophy after the game.
“The environment was crazy,” Ahlers said. “From the start from us coming out in black uniforms, it being a blackout, it was definitely something that we will remember for the rest of our lives. We knew that us seniors weren’t going to go out on the wrong note here in front of these fans, in front of the best fans in the state.”
Conley’s players found out about their new black jerseys when they entered the locker room to enter the game, only adding to a festive Senior Night atmosphere.
“It was a special moment for the whole team,” head coach Nate Conner said. “It was an amazing environment. It’s a night these kids will not forget. It was special to be a part of. It was really awesome, from the jerseys, to coming out, to the fireworks. It was electric in pregame warmups as the seniors were coming across. It was awesome.”
Ahlers, who has committed to play at East Carolina University, left Conley fans with yet another memorable performance among many in his stellar four-year career. The poised 6-4, 235-pound left-handed quarterback amassed 383 total yards — 140 more than the Rampants — and had a hand in six touchdowns.
Ahlers completed 12 of 21 passes for 205 yards with four touchdowns — two each to junior standout C.J. Johnson and senior Jaquavion Bridges — and rushed for 178 yards on 10 carries and a pair of touchdowns, including a career-long 91-yard scamper. Ahlers has thrown for 40 touchdowns and run for nine more as a senior.
“He was determined on this night to come out and have a special moment, and I think he did that,” Conner said.
Rose head coach Dave Wojtecki appreciated Ahlers’ effort as a player but is glad he will not have to coach against him again.
“He’s a phenomenal quarterback, and he’s going to have a great career at the next level,” Wojtecki said. “It’s been nice but bad watching him for the last four years. He’s a good football player, and he makes things happen, and he’s a winner.”
Ahlers made good things happen from the outset Friday as the Vikings (8-1, 4-0) scored on their first five possessions on the way to a 42-7 halftime lead. He teamed up with Johnson to polish off the first two drives, throwing TD passes of 49 and 14 yards for a 14-0 lead. Johnson finished with four catches for 77 yards, giving him 42 receptions and 20 TD catches this season.
“He’s a great receiver, and I’m really proud of the way he’s worked the past two years,” Ahlers said. “I know if it’s one on one, even if it’s two guys, I trust that he’s going to be there.”
Ahlers nearly had a third first-quarter TD pass, but an 18-yard connection with Isaiah Gamble came up just a yard short of the end zone.Matthew Hofler ran in on the next play for a 21-0 lead with 56.5 second left.
Ahlers did get his third scoring pass less than two minutes in the second quarter on an 11-yard strike to Bridges. On the second play of the next possession, Ahlers headed left on a keeper, got a block then streaked 91 yards for a 35-0 lead.
“When I was about 20 yards from the end zone I kind of peeked back to see where they were at,” Ahlers said. “It was definitely a special moment.”
Rose, which punted on all four of its possessions and was limited to 20 yards in the first quarter, got on the board on the first play after Ahlers’ dash on an 80-yard sprint by Jaylen Dowell, who finished with 129 yards on 15 carries.
The Rampants were unable to cash in a Marquis Brunson interception of a deflected pass, then Conley added a sixth first-half touchdown when Ahlers barreled in from 9 yards. Conley racked up 350 yards in the first half while holding Rose to 148 — 80 of which came on Dowell’s big run.
Poor field position handcuffed the Rampants throughout the half — they started at their 1, 10, 18 and 20 three times thanks to the strong leg of kicker and punter Will Whitehurst.
“It was big,” Wojtecki said of his offense facing a long field against a stout Conley defense. “You get pinned down inside your own 20 several times. … It’s tough to come out of that thing. But we’ve got to make plays offensively, and we’ve got to maintain blocks on our line. We just didn’t do that tonight. Hats off to them. Their defense had a good plan.” passing game. Junior quarterback Grant Charles Jarman completed just 10 of 29 passes for 95 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown to Ben Harris on the game’s final play.
Conley’s only score of the second half came on its first possession on a 38-yard pass from Ahlers to Bridges.
“They’re pretty good,” Wojtecki said. “They’re a very good football team. … It’s tough. You get down early like that, it’s tough to battle back. I’m proud of our guys for fighting for four quarters and never giving up. That was big for us. In the past we would have just folded.”
Rose (3-6, 2-2) plays its final home game next week against Eastern Wayne (4-4, 1-3) before closing the year at New Bern (4-6, 3-2) on Nov. 3. Conley travels to winless Southern Wayne (0-9, 0-4) next week, then visits South Central (8-1, 4-0) on Nov. 4 in what likely will determine the league champion.
Perhaps Ahlers and the Vikings will then get a chance to treat their fans again.
“We hope if we continue this thing going we’ll get another game here as the playoffs start, but we’ve still go two games in front of us to work on that,” Conner said. :We’”e going to enjoy that we were 6-0 at home this year, and I hope that we can come back here because we play well in front of our fans.”