Essex takes huge steps towards playoffs

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 4, 2005

Some high school football games are forgotten by lunchtime Saturday, and some are still talked about 20 years later. It seems pretty likely that for John Essex supporters, last Friday’s 22-20 overtime win over Linden will be long, long into the books before anyone stops talking about it.

“It was a huge win for us,” said Essex head coach Alphus Shipman Monday. “To come back and win in overtime is a special thing…I almost blew it with a few bad calls there in the fourth quarter, but they stuck together and came through in the end. It was just a big win. They played great. I’m proud of my guys.”

The game had more drama than some teams see for an entire season. Essex took a 14-0 lead behind Chris Jones’s inspired defense and 68-yard touchdown run before Linden staged a furious rally in the last seven minutes of the game, scoring on a Jared Jackson touchdown pass and a Christopher Martin interception return for six to tie the game at 14.

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Shipman took the blame for the interception on himself.

“That wasn’t [quarterback Keniote Phillips’] fault,” Shipman says. “That was my fault for telling him where to go with the ball instead of just letting him drop back and read the defense.”

Linden even came close to stealing the game in regulation, driving to the Essex 11 before the Hornet defense held. Since virtually all of Essex’s starters play both ways, it looked as though the Hornets had perhaps started sagging a little bit. But Shipman says a much bigger factor was that Jones had been forced to leave the game with leg cramps.

“We weren’t running out of gas, but Chris left the game,” he says. “In those heated moments the team needs to see their leader out there. When he came back they played far better.”

Shipman says that despite Linden’s dominance of the fourth quarter, he never lost faith in his team’s ability to pull the game out in the end.

“I never felt like we were going to lose,” he says. “There wasn’t any doubt in my mind that with Chris coming back, we’d be able to take it. We got the ball first and just stuck it in.”

After Darnell Edwards had scored to put Essex up six, Jones plowed ahead for the two. Linden answered with their own touchdown on fourth down, but quarterback Darnell Richardson was stopped at the 1 on the two-point try. Darrell Matthews and Jones came over to make the stop, but Shipman also gave credit to defensive end Demetrius Branch who got penetration and forced Richardson outside and gave Matthews and Jones time to make the play.

It was fitting that Jones had a hand in the game-saving play after his huge performance.

“About Chris-when we lost [last year’s starting tailback] a lot of area coaches maybe thought our team wasn’t going to be as good,” Shipman says. “But losing one player doesn’t mean the team can’t be better. He told me, before overtime, that he felt like he had let the team down. So when he got back out there, he absolutely made it count. He leads by example. He’s not going to talk about it. He just expects you to come out and go with him. He’s a great kid to coach.”

The win puts John Essex in control of their playoff destiny. Thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker, at 3-1 in 1A Region 4 play Essex sits a full two games in front of Linden and A.L. Johnson. The Hornets’ next two games come against Sunshine and Akron, neither of whom have beaten any of the other six teams in the region. Win both, and Essex will clinch a spot in the postseason. But Shipman says playoffs remain the last thing on his team’s mind.

“There’s nothing definite,” he says. “We can’t afford to let Sunshine come in and beat us on our homecoming. We’ve got to try to take care of Sunshine first and then see where we are.”