Ball bounces Tigers' way

James Kenan's Marcelias Sutton runs the ball past Wallace-Rose Hill's Johnnie Glaspie in the first half of the 1AA state semifinal game at James Kenan in Warsaw on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013. (Photo by Mike Spencer)

WARSAW | In a moment of pure panic, James Kenan junior Al Owens didn't have much time to debate his options.

When an ill-timed fumble put the Tigers on the brink of disaster in Friday's 1AA state football semifinal against Wallace-Rose Hill, Owens saved the day and then some. The fullback grabbed the loose ball and sprinted 35 yards for the final touchdown in a 28-14 victory.

After racing out to an early three-score lead, James Kenan struggled to shake the rival Bulldogs. Owens' heads-up play with 2 minutes, 27 seconds left provided the knockout blow to send the Tigers into their first state championship game since 2007.

James Kenan will meet West Montgomery in the state final at 3 p.m. Dec. 14 at BB&T Field in Winston-Salem.

"It was just a reaction as it happened," Owens said of his unlikely touchdown. "I was going to fall on it, but I knew I had to do something for the win. I just scooped it up and headed to the house."

Even after James Kenan (14-0) led early, it was no surprise the Tigers needed late heroics to hold off the surging visitors to claim the latest thrilling entry in a heated rivalry.

Wallace-Rose Hill (12-3) trailed 21-0 less than two minutes into the second quarter and limped to the locker room lucky not to be down more. But sophomore Johnnie Glaspie's 56-yard punt return score gave the Bulldogs momentum, and mistakes, namely drops and pre-snap penalties, began to slow James Kenan.

"I thought our guys played their guts out in the second half," Wallace-Rose Hill coach Joey Price said. "We never quit. It was just one of those games where nothing was going to go your way."

Wallace-Rose Hill squandered two chances to tie after pulling within a touchdown on a 5-yard run by senior Dijon Kenan on the second play of the fourth quarter.

Senior Sam Melvin came up with a tackle in the backfield to force a turnover on downs near midfield, and later Wallace-Rose Hill punted on fourth-and-long from its own 8-yard line.

The Bulldogs were expecting a final chance to score, especially when senior Marcelias Sutton coughed up the football, but Owens turned the miscue into the game-clinching touchdown.

"We just couldn't seem to get a break the second half," James Kenan coach Ken Avent Jr. said. "We were missing balls, had some opportunities we couldn't get. I had a little sick feeling that thing was going to squirt the other way, but I saw Al pop out of there with it, and it was a mighty good feeling."

Things didn't go well for the Bulldogs at the start. On the fourth play from scrimmage, Wallace-Rose Hill's quarterback bumped into his running back and then got smacked by senior Daniel Montoya.

Montoya, a 190-pound lineman, ripped the ball away and took off running. He fell across the goal line 28 yards later for a touchdown just 1 minute, 45 seconds into the game.

James Kenan took advantage of the favorable field position created by its defense with a pair of short scoring drives in the first half, both punctuated by Sutton touchdown runs. The N.C. State-bound running back finished with 41 rushing yards on 15 carries.

After falling at home in the state semifinals last season, Sutton and his fellow seniors will get the chance to close out their high school careers on the state’s biggest stage.

“It’s going to be one of a kind, man,” Melvin said. “We worked hard for this, and now we’re going to enjoy it.”