Given that New Bern put up 70 points in its Eastern 4A regional semifinal, whether the Bears could put up points was never in question.
One exchange late in the first half — and another late in the second — of the East regional final between New Bern and Millbrook proved the Wildcats can be explosive, too. On three consecutive plays to close out the second quarter, the teams traded touchdowns and thrilled the gathered crowd with on-field fireworks.
And while the host Bears didn’t again reach the 70-point plateau, they did have more enough in the tank to hold off a game Millbrook squad, 35-27, to secure a berth in next week’s 4A NCHSAA state final.
The exchange at the end of the first half was as explosive as it gets. New Bern quarterback Damaree Tucker hit Malachi Dockett for a 42-yard touchdown which, at the time, put the Bears ahead by 15.
On the ensuing kickoff, Tennessee-bound receiver Nathan Leacock took the ball 90 yards for a touchdown for Millbrook.
And on the next kickoff, New Bern’s Ivion Smith returned the favor, taking that kick back for a score, too.
Surprisingly, the teams battled to a stalemate in the third quarter, but in the fourth, more fireworks.
The Wildcats drew to within one score when quarterback Mason Fortune found David Santiago in the end zone with 3:26 to play. On the ensuing kickoff, Millbrook recovered an onside kick, setting itself up with a first-and-10 at the New Bern 49. The Wildcats drove to the New Bern 5 but stalled. A fourth-down pass from Fortune to Hayden McShea at the back of the end zone was caught, but McShea was ruled out of bounds.
Improbably, the Wildcats got the ball back again after forcing a quick three-and-out, but Fortune’s Hail Mary pass intended for Santiago fell to the turf as time expired.
The high-flying New Bern offense wasted little time producing the game’s first points. Dockett returned the opening kickoff deep into Millbrook territory and, working on a short field, Aronne Herring punched the ball over the line from 2 yards out a few plays later. With the extra point, the host Bears went ahead 7-0 just 1:39 into the game.
The Wildcats drove into New Bern territory on their ensuing drive, but stalled just outside the red zone, settling for an Angel Gomez-Corona field goal to cut the deficit to four.
The teams traded stops near midfield before Herring struck again, this time taking a pitch and rambling 60 yards for the score to give the home team a 14-3 cushion it carried to the end of the opening quarter.
Millbrook struck back to open the second. Xavier Pugh took a sweep play to the corner pylon and, with the extra point Millbrook was again within four at 14-10.
The first big turnover of the game came midway through the second quarter. After forcing a New Bern punt, Fortune threw an interception that put the Bears at the Wildcats’ 17. Moments later, Tucker covered all 17 of those yards and then some, scoring to put the Bears up by two scores again, 21-10.
Gomez-Corona again gave the Wildcats points in the second quarter, helping Millbrook cut the New Bern lead to eight at 21-13. Then, the fireworks began.
New Bern will play in the 4A state final next Friday night at UNC’s Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.