CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (WNCT) — It’s been a long time coming, but East Duplin is finally a state champion in high school football.

The Panthers won their first state championship on Saturday after holding off Reidsville, 24-21 in the Class 2-A title game played at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill.

East Duplin (15-1) has a rich history of football success in Duplin County. However, entering this season, the other schools in the county have won state championships in football. James Kenan has won four titles, Wallace-Rose Hill has won seven and North Duplin has won once.

(Garrett Short, WNCT photo)

Now, add East Duplin to the mix. Before that, the Panthers’ only state title appearance was in 2017 when they lost to Hibriten, 16-14, in the 2-AA title game.

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East Duplin beat rival Wallace-Rose Hill, 28-26, in the Eastern Regional final on Dec. 2 to reach the state title game again.

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The Panthers end the season 15-1, winners of 14 straight since a 58-57 loss to Princeton on Aug. 26. Reidsville (14-2) had won 13 straight after a loss to Page, 22-14, also on Aug. 26.

Reidsville is the winningest program in state history with 22 state titles, four in the past six seasons. The last time Reidsville lost in a state title game was when they fell to Wallace-Rose Hill, 35-28 in overtime, in the 2017 2-A title game.

An announced crowd of more than 7,000 watched as the Panthers, led by 15 seniors, toughed out a game that included lots of tense moments. The best dramatic moments came in the final seven minutes.

Reidsville scored a touchdown with 7:25 left and East Duplin converted a fourth down into a touchdown with 2:16 left. Reidsville then followed with an 83-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 2:03 left.

Reidsville attempted an onside kick and recovered, but the ball didn’t travel the required 10 yards. East Duplin got the ball, ran out the clock and began the celebration.

East Duplin led 17-7 in the fourth quarter before Reidsville quarterback Al Lee hit Jaden McCain for a 40-yard touchdown pass. The extra point cut the margin to 17-14 with 7:25 left.

The Panthers put together a long drive that appeared to stall on fourth down at Reidsville’s 5. Instead of going for a field goal — Darwin Bonilla converted in the third quarter to make it 17-7 — the Panthers went for it all. Quarterback Zack Brown found Kade Kennedy for a touchdown pass to make it 24-14 with 2:16 left.

Reidsville then jumped right back into it as Dionte Neal, a freshman, returned the kickoff 83 yards for a touchdown to make it 24-21 with 2:03 left. After the Rams failed to convert on the onside kick, all that was left was for the Panthers to run the clock out.

Avery Gaby, who rushed for 184 yards, scored from a yard out to give East Duplin a 7-0 lead. Gaby came into the game having rushed for over 2,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. He finished as the game’s Most Valuable Player.

Lee passed to Neal from a yard out on the last play of the first half to knot the game at 7-7.

Early in the second half, East Duplin’s Rodrigo Sanchez blocked a field goal attempt by Reidsville, and Elam Moore returned it 70 yards for a touchdown, giving East Duplin a 14-7 lead.

Sanchez was named East Duplin’a Defensive Player of the Game.