The inaugural Hiester Bowl didn't disappoint as Harnett County's most passioned rivalry went the distance in Erwin Friday.
ERWIN — With its home fans providing the perfect background noise, Triton accepted the first-ever Hiester Bowl championship belt Friday night.
It was a worthy designation for Ben Penny's team, who closed its All American Conference slate with three straight wins – all over in-county foes – including a 24-21 victory over archrival Harnett Central in the season finale.
"Winning the first Hiester Bowl means a lot. It's tremendous for our whole community, our school and our administration," Penny said with a wide smile while holding the belt.
"With everything going on right now with COVID ... this is big for us."
The win gives Triton a 4-6 overall mark for the year and a 4-3 conference record.
Much like its previous victories, however, the eventual celebration was set up by tension and drama.
Hawks running back Camauri McDougald finished with a team-high 100 yards on the ground and a first-quarter touchdown from 15 yards out to gain an early 7-0 lead.
Fellow sophomore back J.J. Cowan made it a two-score advantage in the second quarter, running in a short TD run that made it 14-0 with 10:38 left.
But Triton was held off the board until halftime and watched the Central (2-7, 2-5 AAC) offense heat up.
Marquez Jones finished with 68 yards on just eight rushes, including a 1-yard plunge that cut the margin to 14-7 with 5:25 to go in the half. Then, senior wideout Chris Mills scored his first of a team-leading two touchdowns, taking a reverse around the left side from 8 yards out to knot things at 14 just before the break.
Mills' second TD was on an important third-and-long play late in the third quarter with the Trojans down three points. Quarterback Aiden Taylor heaved a deep ball down field and the 6-foot-4 Mills snagged it out the air for a 42-yard score to give his team its first lead, 21-17.
Penny credited both teams' resiliency throughout the contest and felt the push-and-pull pendulum swings are what ultimately determined the outcome.
Triton's turning-point play of the second half came early in the fourth when Eligah Holmes broke up a fourth-and-long pass from Taylor in the end zone that could have put Central up two scores.
"We got the ball back and the momentum shifted, and we just took off with it," Penny said.
"We had it first, they got it back the second quarter– kept it a little bit, then we took it back. That was a great high school football game."
The defenses took center stage in the final period as both squads got key stops.
Hawks linebackers Kenny McKoy and Treyshaun Eastman combined for a sack on a thrid-and-long play and it eventually allowed for a 50-yard completion from Jalen Evans to James Shaw.
Moments later, Ja’Quavis Jackson ran to the pylon from 4 yards out, giving Triton back the lead, 24-21, with just 1:51 to go.
Central's final possession saw Taylor get sacked by Nate McKoy twice. The last takedown came on a fourth-and-19 play from Central's 40, which all but cemented the bragging rights win with just under a minute remaining.
Having to endure two separate pauses this season due to COVID-19 outbreaks, Penny's group sits on the outside of the state playoff bubble but still had reason to leave Friday's contest with heads held high.
"Five games in 15 days. And for these boys to come out with a winning record during that stretch after missing so much time– it's all on them and I'm so proud of my football team."
Holmes and Cowan combined for 118 yards rushing, while Shaw had a team-leading 72 receiving yards in the win.
Tay'Shawn Moore ran for a game-high 117 yards, while Mills added an interception in the loss.
Donnell Coley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910 230-2040.