Raleigh never trailed or really looked out of control of its second round playoff bout with Forest on the road Friday night, but the Lions found themselves in somewhat of a cat fight with the Bearcats late in the game. First year head coach Ryan Higdon's team quickly quelled that problem and hushed the home team.
Leading by only 8 points with 6:38 left in the contest, the Lions scored two unanswered touchdowns within a mere 54 seconds to secure a 50-28 victory over the Bearcats and a third round playoff berth. Javarious Walker broke free on a 30-yard touchdown run to cushion the Lions' lead by two touchdowns more than halfway through the fourth quarter, and Margro Perkins essentially put the game out of reach with a convincing, 33-yard gallop to the endzone with 4:49 remaining in the game. Despite several second half mishaps, Raleigh kept clawing, was noticeably dominate in the final seven minutes, and finished the game very competitively, which was especially pleasing to Higdon.
“They are not going to give up. These guys back earlier in the year might have laid down, and they (Forest) might have come back and beat us. But, our guys are just relentless. They have really started to learn what it takes to finish a ballgame, and they did that tonight,” he said. “We were up three touchdowns, and they came back and got within a score of us. Our guys just kept working, trusted us, and trusted what we do. They trust themselves, and they trust what we do. That's a huge part of these guys right here finishing this ballgame tonight.”
Raleigh rolled off a total 471 yards (431 rushing) against Forest Friday night, but did have to contend with a potent Bearcats passing game that produced 300 yards.
The Lions got things going on its first offensive possession of the ballgame after forcing Forest in only three plays to punt soon after the opening kickoff. Following a long Margro Perkins run into Forest territory, quarterback Jay Jones and Margro Perkins hooked up twice, eventually landing the Lions in the endzone on a Jones-to-Perkins, 9-yard touchdown strike that handed Raleigh a 7-0 lead following the extra point, in which Suntarine Perkins was perfect all night long.
Raleigh took a two-touchdown lead with 5:16 left in the first quarter after the Lions defense forced another Forest, three-play drive and punt. Raleigh began the drive on its own 37-yard line, and long runs by Jones and Suntarine Perkins set up a 4-yard, Jones touchdown trip to the endzone.
Forest inched into the ballgame early during the second quarter after beginning a drive on its own 41-yard line. DaShun Lofton eventually hit Jakolbi Smith during the drive on a 12-yard touchdown connection to cut the lead to 14-7, but the Lions stayed on the offensive prowl. Margro Perkins ripped off a 24-yard run on the ensuing drive, and Suntarine Perkins complemented that effort with a 30-yard touchdown run that gave the Lions a 22-7 advantage following a Walker 2-point conversion run.
Raleigh later in the second quarter took a 29-7 lead on a Margro Perkins, 18-yard touchdown rush, but Forest answered with a 21-yard touchdown pass to trim the Lions' lead to 29-14 at the half.
Things then got interesting in the third quarter.
On the first offensive play following the second half kickoff, the Lions fumbled the football away to the Bearcats at its own 30-yard line, but after several Forest blunders, the Lions defensive unit eventually forced a punt. Raleigh then drove deep into Forest territory to the 10-yard line, but following several miscues turned over the ball on downs. The Bearcats then drove the field with an efficient passing game, but Raleigh's Shamir Horne halted the threat with an interception at the goal line with 2:53 remaining in the third. Forest then took advantage of a Raleigh fumble, and Lofton eventually connected with Tobias Jenkins on a 5-yard touchdown pass to slice the Lions' lead to 29-21 with 1:07 left in the third quarter.
Later in the fourth quarter, Raleigh extended its lead again by two touchdowns, but Forest hung around for a while. Raleigh's Jones dropped to pass, but found an opening in the Forest defense and ran 18 yards for a score to give the Lions a 36-21 advantage with 7:11 left in the game. But, less than a minute following the Raleigh touchdown that looked like it was going to put the Bearcats away for good, Lofton connected with Ladarius Patrick on a 68-yard touchdown pass to cut Raleigh's lead to 36-28.
To add to the excitement, Forest on the ensuing kickoff recovered an onside kick, but the Lions defense eventually forced a turnover on downs with 6:03 left on the game clock. Raleigh then seemed to have caught another gear. Walker roped off his 30-yard touchdown run, and Damond Keyes recovered a Forest fumble on the ensuing kickoff at the Bearcats' 33-yard line. Margro Perkins polished off that Forest mishap with his 33-yard touchdown scamper, which all but put the Bearcats out of business with 4:49 left in the game. Suntarine Perkins later picked off a Lofton pass with four minutes left in the game to seal the deal.
The Lions (7-3) are now headed to the third round of the MHSAA 3A South playoffs and will face an undefeated Magee Trojans team next Friday night at home. Higdon looks forward to the challenge.
“It feels awesome (to advance to the third round). We still have a shot. I spent 12 years at Bassfield and JDC (Jefferson Davis County) with coach Lance Mancuso. And, coach Mancuso always said if you get to Thanksgiving and are still playing that means you've got a legit shot,” he explained. “We are going to go this week and get ready, and I'm telling you it really feels good. It never gets old. I told my guys from June the first when I put them in the baseball bleachers (to meet them) I plan on practicing on Thanksgiving, and I'm very proud of these kids.”
Coincidentally, Higdon knocked off his long-time mentor, Mancuso, last week in a first round win over Jefferson Davis County, the 2017 and 2019 3A State Champions, on which he once was an integral part of the coaching staff.
Watching his Lions grow into a new system in such a short time since he has come to Raleigh this year has been exciting for Higdon. The Lions finished last season with a 6-6 record and bowed out of the 2019 playoffs to Magee in a second round blowout. This year, Raleigh has been very noticeable in each game played, even losses, and Higdon says it has been a process . . . a process of mindset and trust his new team has taken seriously and advanced from the beginning of the season.
“We are able to do a lot more (than earlier in the season). We are able to spread the field a little bit, and we are able to throw the ball a little bit better than I thought we were going to be able to throw it,” he mentioned. “They come out each day, and they practice to get better. It's not like 'let's just go through the motions' to get to Friday. They've gotten better each week in practice learning the proper technique, the plays, and other things, and I think just trust in what we do just shows you how much this team has matured.”