BURGAW – East Duplin acted quickly when Richlands called to say it would not have enough healthy players to field a team for the annual rivalry game between the two schools that are off N.C. 24.

Athletics Director and football coach Battle Holley jumped at the chance to face Pender.

Yet he gave his team a tall task since the Patriots run an offense that is unfamiliar to most prep football teams.

Pender had leads of 14-0, 22-7, 28-17, 36-17 and 44-25 before the Panthers rallied for the final three touchdowns, including the lone fourth-quarter TD to rally for a 48-44 win.

“As the game went on we got better, but we made a lot of adjustments throughout,” Holley said. “We got a couple of stops, a strip of the ball. That triple option is tough to defend if you haven’t prepared for it.

“And we finally won a close one,” he continued after having lost a heart-breaker to Princeton for the second consecutive season — and having a spring season of one-score losses that kept ED out of the state playoffs.

“I know what it’s like to be on the other side of these things,” he said. “Pender played their hearts out and we were lucky to come out on top. It was a tough game.”

Avery Gaby ran for 209 yards and scored three times, while also extending a drive by throwing a pass to Jesse Clinesmith, who nabbed three for 73 yards.

Quarterback Nick Cavenaugh had a 12-yard TD connection to Daunte Hall, who added 45 yards on eight carries and a touchdown, and Kade Kennedy returned a kickoff 60 yards for a score.

It took every bit of that and then some for the Panthers to improve to 2-1.

“Gaby ran hard and so did our other backs,” Holley said. “The fake punt was big.”

Antonio Bea had 16 carries for 100 yards and two scores and Jadon Lee eight totes for 86 yards and three TDs. Kelvin Robinson also caused problems with 84 yards on 15 carries.

Pender has a string of losing seasons since coach Tom Eanes left a decade ago after leading the Patriots to three 10-win seasons, with a state title appearance in 2010. But he’s back and has his club ready.

Lee accounted for the first two scores of the game and ED was playing from behind most of the evening.

Gaby looked to settle the wave with a 19-yard score, but Lee stepped on ED’s pride with a 95-yard kickoff return to make it 22-7.

The Cavenaugh-to-Clinesmith score covered 12 yards.

“We saw something in the coverage we felt like we could take advantage of and it worked,” Holley said.

But Bea jammed in from the 6 and ED had just enough time for a 27-yard field goal from Darwin Bonilla to cut it to 28-17 at halftime.

The pace didn’t slow in the wild third quarter.

Bea started it with a 56-yard score, but Gaby countered with a 34-yard dash to paydirt to cut the deficit to 36-23. There was still a lot of work to be done, especially after Lee ran 69 yards to push the margin to 44-25.

Kennedy’s kick return provided a spark the Panthers needed.

Hall trimmed it to 44-41 entering the fourth.

Gaby’s 31-yard score was the difference in a game that saw both teams struggle on third down.

ED was 1 of 13, while Pender was 3 of 11, but had a significant 10-minute advantage in time of possession.

Panther Paws

ED out-rushed Pender 284-270 and had slightly fewer penalty yards (67-56). In a tale of four quarters, Pender outscored ED 22-7 in the first quarter. ED won the second (10-6), third (24-16) and fourth (7-0).

Gaby nearly doubled his rushing output from the first two games and has gained 430 yards in three games.

If all goes as planned, and in these pandemic times that’s not always possible, East Duplin will travel to Newport on Friday to face Croatan, which is 1-1 and coming off a 20-14 win against West Craven.

“They have a big O-line and the backs run hard,” Holley said. “They run the split-back veer with a triple option. It’s going to be physical up there. Another tough night against a well-coached team.”

The Panthers won the last meeting 21-13 in the first round of the state playoffs in 2019.

ED also picked up a game for its open week. It will face Midway on Oct. 1. The Panthers open ECC play on Sept. 17 against James Kenan in Warsaw.

Michael Jaenicke can be reached at mjaenicke@ncweeklies.com

Michael Jaenicke can be reached at mjaenicke@ncweeklies.com