Saunders' Dream Season Ends

DURHAM, N.C. --- Durham (N.C.) Riverside's "Cinderella" season came to a crashing halt Saturday as nationally ranked Charlotte (N.C.) Independence routed the Pirates 49-19 in the NCHSAA 4AA State Title game.

After ending the regular season with a 6-4 record – including a 3-5 start that was later helped by a forfeit win, Riverside entered the playoffs as the 11th seed and upset the 6th-, 3rd-, 2nd-, and 1st-seeded teams in the east bracket.

One of the keys for Independence's success was neutralizing 6-foot-5, 270-pound jumbo athlete Weslye Saunders, who played every offensive and defensive down.

"[Saunders] is pretty much a one-man show," said Independence head football coach Tommy Knotts. "There's obviously more than [just him on the team], but he makes them go and keeps them in the game. We were always aware of where he was."

On defense, Saunders started the game at defensive end, but was moved to middle linebacker late in the third quarter to accommodate for Independence's strategy of staying away from the three-star prospect.

"Defensively, during the second quarter all we were running were ‘check with me' [plays] away from 82," said Knotts, referring to Saunders' jersey number. "Then he goes to middle [linebacker], so we just picked a side to run to and hoping that our center or tackle would get him on the zone play."

The philosophy helped Independence in accumulating 314 yards on the ground as Saunders was left basically helpless.

"I noticed that [they were staying away from me]," said Saunders. "It was very frustrating. I couldn't do anything about it. When I moved to the other side [of the defensive line], [Darryl McFadden] just audibled the play to the other side. It was very frustrating."

The move to middle linebacker led to the biggest play of the night for Riverside – a 44-yard interception return by Saunders.

"We threw a slant pass at the end of the game and he pulls it out of the sky and gets a touchdown," said Knotts.

With the ball in his hand and the score reaching blowout status, Saunders was determined to get into the end zone.

"There was probably nothing that was going to stop me from getting the touchdown," said Saunders.

Saunders, who was named Riverside's "Outstanding Defensive Player," collected seven tackles (three solo).

Offensively, it was almost the same story as Independence game planned around Saunders limiting his production to two catches for 39 yards and a three-yard run.

"I was getting triple- and double- teamed," said Saunders. "I really can't expect the quarterback to throw the ball in triple coverage. I was just hoping that my other teammates would step up and make plays."

South Carolina pledge Jason Barnes caught six passes for 80 yards and a 13-yard touchdown. McFadden, an East Carolina verbal, won the "Outstanding Offensive Player" award for Independence after completing 13-of-20 passes for 159 yards and a touchdown. Unheralded tailback DeQuann Leak rushed 33 times for 204 yards and four touchdowns.

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