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John Essex receiver first to make all-state in over 10 years

Nobody remembers for sure the last time a John Essex Hornet made the all-state team. Even more difficult is figuring out who that last player may have been. Veteran members of the Alabama Sports Writers Association prep committee marveled at seeing the school’s name come across the nomination table.

After all, the Hornets had totaled three wins in the previous two seasons, and most considered the program on the upswing.

The Hornets have seen few players and numerous coaches over the last 10 years. So finding consistency on the field has been, at best, an improbability.

“This decade has been horrendous for this school as far as coaching turnover,” first-year head coach Lenoise Richey said.

However, within Richey’s offense, junior wide receiver A.J. Bennett evolved into one of the team’s most reliable players. That progression helped Bennett become the school’s first all-state honoree in more than a decade.

“We’ve always been overlooked in everything we do. We’re always the underdog,” Bennett said. “I took that and just ran with it and showed it can be done.”

“Anytime you get recognized from people who are looking at the numbers, it is something that lasts forever,” Richey said. “Nobody was more deserving than A.J.”

Bennett became quarterback Letrelle Griffin’s favorite target this season, showing a penchant for getting open deep when the signal-caller found himself on the run. It was Bennett’s nose for the open field and ability to roll with his scrambling quarterback that enabled him to get open early in the season.

“By changing systems from a power running game to a spread offense, we caught a lot of people off guard,” Richey said. After the first half of the season, teams began adjusting to the Hornets’ attack, often assigning a corner to cover Bennett up close and putting a safety over top to keep him from getting loose deep.

“What really let me know that he is a special athlete is when he started to run the slant routes and the inside routes and had more yards the second half of the season than he had in the first,” Richey said of the junior’s ever-improving ability.

“He really tried to get me involved in the offense,” Bennett said of Richey’s help. “He just had me in the right position at the right time.”

The leading vote-getter among wide receivers in Class 1A, Bennett ranked first in the grouping with 1,057 yards. He was second in catches with 53 and third in touchdowns with 11. The breakdown gave the 6-0, 176-pound target an average of 19.94 yards per catch.

Still, as honored as Bennett was by receiving the accolade, his focus remained on how he could use the accomplishment to help advance the program.

“It feels good, knowing that I can be a role model to other kids coming up and knowing I’m going to be a senior and have a chance to do the same thing next year,” Bennett said.

“I think what it does more than anything, besides help the school with its history, is that it serves as a recruiting tool for me,” Richey said of how he hopes the accomplishment may serve to encourage other Essex students to look to play the game. “It shows that kids from John Essex can play this game as well.”