Game of the Week: American Christian at John Essex

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 1, 2005

They’re coming off of a 40-point pasting of their first opponent. They’re coming with a number-3 ranking in the state. They’re coming with a 1A Player of the Year Finalist at quarterback and 17 seniors.

But John Essex head coach Alphus Shipman says no matter how much American Christian brings with them on paper, it won’t matter when his Hornet team takes on the favored Patriots this Friday at Essex.

“Games are played on the field. A newspaper might say we’re the underdog, but nobody know what’ll happen Friday night,” he says. “We’re going to fight hard. We’ll be at home and it’s going to be a hard-fought battle.”

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Essex will be looking to build on the momentum generated by their big second half last week on the road at Marengo. After trailing 13-0 early in the second quarter and 13-6 at the half, the Hornets put up 22 points in the second half to win going away 28-19. Shipman gives his team credit for “the way they came together” and refused to lose.

“At halftime, I told them, let’s do this together,” Shipman says. “If we lose the game, if we win the game, let’s do it as a team. They just took to it and got the job done.”

Shipman will need to see that kind of effort and more for all 48 minutes if the Hornets are to upset American Christian. The job will be made harder by the continued absence of pre-season projected starting quarterback Keniote Phillips, who missed the Marengo game with a sprained knee suffered during Essex’s jamboree game with Linden and will not recover in time to face ACA.

The good news is that backup QB Suran Allen shone in the second half of the Marengo game and could be even better with the nerves of his first start behind him.

“He had a great game,” Shipman says. “I expected that out of him. I thought he’d be fine once he settled down a bit and he showed that. Now I know to expect a little more out of him this week.”

Allen had plenty of help, though, from an Essex running game that exploded in the second half. Tailbacks Chris Jones and Darnell Edwards combined for a whopping 287 yards in the contest, with Jones totaling three scores. That success was due in large part to a surprisingly aggressive offensive line that returned only one starter–college prospect Robert Parker at right tackle–but opened plenty of holes in the Marengo defense Friday.

“They’re looking a bit better,” Shipman says. “We’re not playing the same type of defensive line this week, but if they come out and play, we’ll be fine.”

They’ll have to if Essex is to contain the potent Patriot offense, led by senior quarterback and 1A Player of the Year candidate Chris Smelley. Smelley is an SEC-caliber prospect who threw for 38 touchdown passes last season and helped ACA post 62 points on helpless Coffeeville last week. Shipman says this is a case of the best defense being a good offense.

“It’s not calculus,” he says. “We want to keep him on the sideline, talking to coach [Stephen] Hooks. If we can keep him over there the majority of the time, we’ll be in good shape.”

When Smelley and the rest of the Patriots (most notably 6-2 WR Jeffrey Ogren and RB Rick Spybey) do take the field, Shipman says the Hornets’ plan is to just play as hard as they can and not let Smelley get into a rhythm.

“We’re going to try the same thing everybody else has tried: just don’t let him take control of the game,” he says. “You can’t stop him. If we can hold him to the minimum and keep it close going into the fourth quarter, we can win the game. We just can’t let him get loose.”

The Patriots won last year’s match-up 32-6, but Shipman says that won’t affect his team’s confidence “at all.” That game was played in Tuscaloosa and more importantly saw an Essex player leave the game with a serious neck injury that took a lot out of the Hornets emotionally.

Things will be different this year, Shipman says, but that doesn’t mean the Hornets’ preparation will be any different–even when facing the kind of challenge Smelley and ACA will provide.

“We’re approaching it like any other game,” he says. “We’re trying to get them in a routine and just get them ready for Friday.”