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Great expectations

John Essex opens its regular season Friday night when it hosts cross-county and AHSAA 1A, Region 3 rival, A.L. Johnson High School. The Hornets will look to build upon the momentum it has gained over the course a strong off season that culminated last week with back-to-back 6-0 jamboree victories over 3A Choctaw County and 4A Livingston.

“Last week was a big boost in confidence going into a county rival and region game,” JEHS head coach Fentress Means said. “It wasn’t just being able to compete with a 3A team like Choctaw and a 4A team like Livingston, but being able to win and hold them to zero points. It was a tremendous effort on our team’s behalf.”

Means’ team, which went 1-9 in 2007, relied upon an efficient offensive effort and an aggressive defense to pull out the wins at the Livingston jamboree.

On the night, freshman quarterback Letrelle Griffin toted the ball 11 times for 80 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown run to seal the Choctaw County victory. Griffin also went 3-for-7 through the air for 38 yards and a touchdown.

“Letrelle is an exceptional athlete. His skills are unbelievable for such a young guy,” Means said of Griffin.

“He’s just got a lot of confidence,” senior receiver Zackary Fluker said of freshman signal caller. “He’s a good quarterback and running back and receiver.” Fluker made an acrobatic play to pull down Griffin’s 24-yard touchdown pass and take the late lead over Livingston with only 21 seconds remaining on the game clock.

The JEHS defense set the tone during the team’s jamboree, recording six sacks on the evening. Sophomores Dominique Williams and DeMarkez Dillingham led the way with two sacks each.

“It was a tremendous effort for a first-year ball player,” Means said of Dillingham. “I expect pretty much the same thing this week against A.L. Johnson.” Means was also complimentary of Williams; a player he says has dropped 20 pounds since last season and shown a renewed commitment to the game.

Dillingham finished the night with seven tackles, five of which were for a loss. Four of Williams’ five tackles went for loss.

Preston Parker and Willie Daniels each recorded a sack while Jamie Daniels forced a fumble that was recovered by Fluker.

Means credits assistant coach Johnny Ford with the newly-intensified Hornet defense.

“Coach Ford has put in a lot of time helping me out, especially during the summer. I really appreciate the effort that he’s given us. By him coming in as defensive coordinator, he’s made us that much better,” Means said. The second-year head coach also expressed his appreciation for assistant coaches Ron Clayton, Ron Dixon and James Daniels.

“To be honest, this is the hardest I’ve ever worked as a coach trying to these kids ready,” Means said. “I want to commend the kids on the effort so far. They’ve worked really hard.”

Means said he believes the effort he has seen from his team is the product of a changing culture within John Essex athletics.

“I talk everyday about attitude, sportsmanship and discipline. If we’re going to go far, we’re going to have to do those things,” Means said. “You don’t know how it makes a coach feel to have all his ball players at practice everyday. What we’re trying to do is change their old way of thinking. I think they want it. They want a change here at John Essex. It’s not just them, but the whole student body, faculty and staff. Everybody is working hard.”

The John Essex coach said that a great deal of the change in his team’s mindset could be credited to the leadership abilities of his senior players.

“Their mindset has been a 180-degree turnaround. It is unbelievable,” Means said. “They want it more. I think that comes from senior leadership with Willie Daniels and Zack Fluker talking to them everyday.”

According to Fluker, the awareness that this is his final season feeds his desire for success.

“Playing this year is easier because you know what you want. You know this is your last chance,” the senior wide receiver said.

Fluker’s maturity combined with his on-field ability make him a considerable threat for the Hornets. However, Means was adamant that Fluker is just one of many capable players on the offensive side of the ball.

“We don’t have just one weapon. We have several weapons. And by Zack and Trelle (Griffin) working hard everyday, it’s making other guys step up. We’re looking for more guys to go to,” Means said.

As for Friday night, Means said he remains hopeful a strong crowd shows up for a game he believes will help set the tone for the 2008 season.

“Our goal is to make the playoffs. The way we’re going to be able to do that is to start off by beating A.L. Johnson this Friday,” he said. “Coach (Mose) Jones usually brings in a pretty good team year in and year out. I just think our guys are more prepared this year. I know A.L. Johnson is hard to beat and they play every play.”

The Eagles 50-14 victory in 2007 came against a John Essex squad that boasted only 13 players and had very little time within Means’ system. The 2008 Hornet roster features 21 players. Means acknowledges his team is still small, but will prove more of a challenge for foes this season.

“We may be small in number, but we’re not going to be everybody’s homecoming,” he said.