Senior quarterback CJ Bradshaw dives over a West Stokes defender to give Kinston a 14-0 lead in the 2AA state championship game. The Vikings lost 21-14. (Tommy Tsao/The Viking Press)

By Resita Cox

Kinston High’s dream season ended with a nightmarish number of penalties and late-game fumbles at Carter-Finley Stadium, where the Vikings lost 21-14 to West Stokes in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 2AA state championship.

Four turnovers and 88 penalty yards (including three that led to touchdowns being called back) gave the 21-14 win to the West Stokes Wildcats of King.

Both teams were playing in their first state championship. Despite entering the game undefeated at 15-0, many considered the Wildcats underdogs to the heavily favored Vikings, who entered the game ranked No. 3 in the final state football polls.

“Nobody can say we are the underdogs now because we won,” West Stokes quarterback Austin Fleming said. “No one put us in the situation to win.”

The state championship was the first in any sport for the Wildcats.

The game didn’t always belong to West Stokes, however. The Vikings (13-2) started strong in the first quarter with a 3-yard touchdown run by Shaheed Swinson with 9:49 on the clock, and the Vikings had a 7-0 lead following Will Deters’ extra point.

Another 3-yard touchdown run, this time from senior quarterback C.J. Bradshaw on an end-around reverse punctuated by a dive into the end zone, and another point after by Deters gave the Vikings a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.

As it turned out, that would be the last time the Vikings found the end zone.

Fleming, who was voted the Wendy’s Most Valuable Player by the media, led the Wildcats to their victory starting with his 5-yard touchdown run at the end of the second quarter. With just over nine minutes left in the game, the Vikings allowed Fleming to score two more times, giving the Wildcats the 21-14 lead they needed to win.

Prior to the game-tying score, the Vikings looked to open up a 21-7 lead on three separate occasions, including on back-to-back plays in the third quarter. Swinson appeared to find the end zone on a 5-yard run in the third, but a block in the back negated the score. On the next play, Bradshaw hit senior Jevonte Jones in the end zone, but a holding penalty backed the Vikings up once more, and the drive ended without a score.

In the fourth, Swinson crossed the goal line again, but a holding call kept Kinston out of the end zone, and a fumble on the ensuing play gave the ball to the Wildcats, who promptly marched down the field to tie the score at 14-14.

Making so many mistakes and coming so close to a state title is what seemed to hurt the Vikings the most.

“We went out there and played our game,” Bradshaw said. “Unfortunately, we got hit with a little bit of adversity. But sometimes you’ve got to just man up and just play your game. It hurts real bad, though. You had it in your hands and it just slipped away.”

Both teams made their first appearance in the NCHSAA state football finals this year. Each school was also the overall top seed in their 2-AA brackets. Both coming from relatively small towns, the teams seemed to match up almost perfectly.

Fleming, quarterback for West Stokes, played with a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder yet still managed to complete 10 of his 12 passes for an overall 84 yards.

Bradshaw completed 9 of 21 passes for 157 yards and led his team with 90 yards on the ground.  Bradshaw was named East Most Outstanding Offensive Player and senior Angelo Keyes, who had 20 tackles, was named Most Outstanding Defensive Player for the East.

Despite their loss, it was a historic season for the Vikings and they still came out as the Eastern Regional champions.

“The season meant a lot,” Bradshaw said. “We came out here and put our school on the map and basically made history.”