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ALJ outlasts feisty John Essex team

THOMASTON – It was not the opener either coach was hoping for, but A.L. Johnson beat John Essex 35-14 Thursday night.

After rushing out to a quick 19-0 lead in the first quarter, the Eagles appeared on pace to dominate the contest. Senior tailback Richard McGhee scored the first touchdown of the night on a goal line carry just 54 seconds into the game. Kejuan McGhee added the point after kick to give ALJ the 7-0 lead.

John Essex first possession ended when the Eagles came up with a third down fumble. The Hornets then forced a three-and-out.

After the ensuing punt set Essex up at its own 21, the Hornets began going the wrong direction, yielding a sack on first down. On second down, senior linebacker Eddie Custard blasted through the Hornet front and ripped the ball from the hand of the JEHS back, setting ALJ up 10 yards from paydirt.

Kejuan McGhee punctuated the drive with a two-yard scoring bolt on fourth down to extend the Eagle lead. The score remained 13-0 following the missed point after attempt.

The Eagles added to their lead on the next possession when Ronzell Henton knifed through the middle of the Hornet defense for a 54-yard run, pushing the lead to 19-0.

Down and on the verge of a blowout, the Hornets showed signs of life on the ensuing drive. Essex took over at its own 34 and promptly backtracked to the 22 on a sack before quarterback Letrell Griffin picked up 17 yards on a keeper and 15 more on a late hit penalty. ALJ was flagged for another personal foul on the very next play, moving the ball up to the Eagle 35. Griffin then found senior J.J. Fluker on a 12-yard pass play.

Just as the drive picked up steam, the Eagles sacked Griffin again for an eight-yard loss.

“He did an excellent job,” first-year head coach Lenoise Richey said of Griffin. “It can be frustrating at times when the line doesn’t block the way it is supposed to. He did an excellent job. But we need him to do a better job of keeping his composure.”

Griffin showed that composure on the first play of the second quarter. The Hornet snap hit the ground. Amid the chaos of a collapsing pocket Griffin picked the ball up off the ground, scrambled to his right, eluded a pair of defenders and threw the ball to a wide open A.J. Bennett for a 31-yard touchdown pass. Griffin then punched in the two-point conversion, cutting the deficit to 19-8.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Jones said. “That No. 3 is a hell of a ballplayer.”

Neither team scored again until a bizarre series in the third quarter gave John Essex an opportunity. After failing to move the ball offensively, the Hornets punted. The Eagles fumbled the punt return, handing the ball back to Essex at the ALJ 40. Three plays later, Griffin’s heave on third and 19 was intercepted by Kejuan McGhee. The Hornets managed to wrestle the ball away from McGhee on the tackle attempt, setting JEHS up at the Eagle 28.

Essex then yielded seven yards on a sack before Griffin found Fluker for a 23-yard gain. The drive culminated with a seven-yard Griffin scamper, cutting the score to 19-14.

“I kind of think (our players) took them a little light there,” Jones said.

“We see that when we play, we can be a tough opponent,” Jones said. “For two and a half quarters, we held them to zero points.”

Essex then forced a three-and-out and looked down field on its own third down play, only to be turned away by an ALJ interception.

Richard McGhee eventually ended that drive with a six-yard jaunt. He added his own two-point conversion run to push the lead to 27-14 with 9:45 to go in the game.

“I was feeling good,” the senior tailback said. “I was really just trying to put my team in position to win the game.”

Deandre Langhorne added a score on a five-yard run with 28 seconds to go. Demarcus Woods punched in the conversion run to cap the scoring at 35-14.

“I hate to sound like a broken record, but discipline and conditioning,” Richey said. “We showed more spurts than we did last week. We’ve just got to get better at the small things.”

For Jones, the story was discipline and ball control.

“We had a lot of turnovers there and had a truck load of penalties,” Jones said. “I told them during the week, you’re going to have to win some ugly ball games. I’m real proud of my guys. Overall, I feel that we could be a pretty good team. I was real proud of the way we just sucked it up and won.”

“We started off hot. They started putting in points. We just had to dig down deep,” Richard McGhee, who ended the game with 105 yards rushing on 13 carries said. “We can get a lot better if we eliminate the penalties.”

Henton finished the night with 97 yards on six carries. Woods and Kaleb Hood led the Eagles with eight tackles each. Jamie Daniels had seven for the Hornets.