By Bill Sorrell
Photos by Dana Goode
Running through a tunnel formed by Briarcrest Christian School students, Briarcrest players heard them chant “I believe that we just won!” as players stood in one of the end zones that led them to victory.
Withstanding a late surge by Houston, the Saints defeated the Mustangs 28-21 on Friday at Briarcrest.
“We’ve been working all summer,” said Briarcrest wide receiver and defensive back Reed Linder. “We’ve been doubted. Everybody thinks we are in an off year but we have been grinding.”
Briarcrest never trailed taking a 14-3 halftime lead and expanded it to 28-10 before the Mustangs rallied.
“If we would’ve had one more offensive possession we might have tied it up. I loved the fight we had,” said Houston running back/outside linebacker Ben Stegall.
Houston Head Coach James Thomas said, “They showed me some resiliency. They got down 18 there at the end. We came back and made it a ball game.”
What made it a ball game for the Saints was a defense that forced four Houston turnovers, including a fumble recovery by Keyron Crawford that later led to a touchdown run by Derrick Carroll, the Saints first score. That was followed by a 54-yard touchdown run by Ahmad Miller, a 36-yard touchdown pass from J.D. Sherrod to Miller and Sherrod’s 2-yard touchdown run.
“I just love the way they fight,” said Briarcrest Head Coach Brian Stewart. “I love the way they play so hard. I have got kids out there that haven’t played a lot of football. They just play hard.”
Thomas called it a game of “ebbs and flows.”
“When you play from behind all night it’s tough to do,” he noted. “We felt like we had the momentum in the first quarter. We kept shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties and putting ourselves behind the chains, it’s hard to play offense.”
Houston sophomore wide receiver and defensive back Max Stegall said, “I think we beat ourselves. We have got to come back next week and fix some stuff, mental mistakes. Overall I think we did all right. I think whenever you lose you use it as a building block and learn from your mistakes and get better.”
Houston (1-1) hosts Cordova (0-2) in a Region 8-6A game this Friday, while Briarcrest (2-0) hosts Brentwood Academy (1-1) in a Division 2-AAA West Region game.
The Saints will continue to capitalize on a defense that “came out with energy and a mindset to win,” according to Briarcrest wide receiver and defensive back Max Carroll.
“Our defense was amazing. We had a bunch of stops. We held them to three points at halftime,” he added. “Our offense, too. We had a bunch of good runs. Our running game was very good tonight, excellent. Ahmad Miller, Derrick Carroll had some great runs. Our quarterbacks J.D. (Sherrod) and Blake (Clarkson) had some very good runs and throws.”
Linder echoed Carroll.
“J.D. and Blake came in and did a good job. Max (Carroll), the line did great. Everybody did great. It was a team effort,” said Linder, adding the 14-0 lead the Saints had sparked momentum.
A junior who transferred from Florida, Sherrod completed 11-of-20 passes for 187 yards. Clarkson, a junior, completed 4-of-6 passes for 88 yards. Miller rushed for 160 yards on 17 carries. Linder led receivers with 162 yards with 8 receptions.
“I was proud of both our quarterbacks,” said Stewart. “Blake comes in and settles everybody down. He quietly does his job like he always does.
“You think about Reed Linder,” he continued, “he made plays on both sides of the ball, a pick, had some big catches in crucial situations then Max Carroll going down, making a tackle, stripping the football, Keyron Crawford never played football much, maybe in junior high, comes over here is sprinting down the field.”
One of the Mustangs’ best plays of the game was a fake punt. George Vezina was in punt formation when Brady Weatherly ran it instead. The Mustangs got a first down on the Briarcrest 47.
“We didn’t make the play. They make the play. You tip your hat,” said Stewart.
However, on the next play Linder intercepted Houston quarterback Jeremiah Salem and later scored a touchdown.
“Every turnover they got was a turning point. We got some momentum with the fake punt and come out and we throw an interception. It’s going to happen in football. You hope it happens less on your side,” said Thomas.
Said Clarkson, “The turning point was our defense and their ability to cause turnovers and give the offense the ball. Our team did well at overcoming the setbacks and pushing through the mess-ups and capitalizing with much-needed scores.”
He called Max Carroll, Miller and Linder “standouts.”
“Max had multiple forced fumbles that really gave our team the push it needed to get some momentum going. Ahmad Miller with his ability to find the gaps and keep his feet moving,” Clarkson said. “He ran until the whistle blew and never gave up when a run looked cloudy or broken. And with the help of Reed we did what we liked to do and break down the defense. We found the open areas and threw the ball to him with the trust that he would made something happen. Our team is one. Not a single thing would have been the same if we did not play for the benefit of our teammates.”
The Mustangs were fueled by the runs of senior Jaylin Momon, who gained 91 yards on 15 carries. Thomas said that Momon ran the ball well as did D.J. Grayson, Jr., and Damon Sisa. Grayson ran for 30 yards on 7 carries.
“Damon is a sophomore. He came in late and ran the ball well and scored a touchdown,” said Thomas. “We’ve got players. We have a lot of capable backs.”
Thomas was pleased with Mustangs kicker George Vezina, a sophomore, who had field goals of 32 and 47 yards and four punts for 130 yards.
“He did a heck of a job. He changed the field with a couple of punts,” said Thomas.
Houston senior wide receiver and defensive back Will Stegall said, “He did awesome tonight. I’m really looking forward to him this year.”
Thomas said the Mustangs “have got some good, young talent.”
“We’ve got some good seniors in key spots,” he said. “We are pretty sound in the defensive backfield. We have a lot of young guys up front. We have a guy out that we are expecting big things from, Roderrick Conklin (sophomore offensive lineman).”
After battling COVID-19, he returned to school Aug. 27.
Ben Stegall, who suffered a high ankle sprain in the third quarter, said, “We have a ton of talent and a bunch of guys that work very hard. We just have to put it all together. If we put it all together we can be a real good team. We are just trying to get better each day and each week and take it play by play, day by day and week by week to get better to be the best team we can be.”
Houston has three Stegalls playing this season, seniors Will and Ben, who are twins, and sophomore Max.
“They are great football players. The Stegalls are a great family. They run, block and tackle. You can always count on them,” said Thomas.
Max Stegall called the chemistry among his brothers “awesome.”
“We have a feel for each other,” he noted. “That’s always a lot of fun. I like the way they play the game and how much they love the game. They care, they really do care.”
Ben Stegall wants to teach his younger brother Max to “play every play like it’s your last.”
“Take nothing for granted,” he said. “It’s awesome (playing with Max and Will). It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. It’s something I’ll never forget that all of us are out there together.”
Will Stegall thought he played well overall against Briarcrest.
“I flew around but overall there are things that I can fix and go back and correct. I’m not perfect but I know I can go back and watch film and correct myself,” he said.
Will Stegall put the Mustangs in scoring position on their first possession. He returned a Cooper Allen punt to the Briarcrest 34 and then ran to the 12. A chop block penalty on Houston put the Mustangs back to the Briarcrest 44.
Later a 16-yard run by Momon got to the Saints 40. Grayson ran to the 26 and then to the 10 but a penalty on Houston put them back to the Saints 31. Will Stegall ran to the Briarcrest 25 and later to the 23 before a holding penalty moved them back to the 41.
Houston had to punt after a penalty put them on the Saints 46.
A fumble recovery by Crawford put the Saints on Houston’s 26 yard line with 11:10 left in the second quarter. A pass from Sherrod to Linder got to the 20 and Derrick Carroll ran for a first down to the Houston 14. Clarkson ran to the 4 and Derrick Carroll scored from there with 9:22 left. Allen kicked the extra point.
On Houston’s next possession, Salem made a long pass to Tim Toney to the Briarcrest 25 but the Mustangs fumbled.
Allen was forced to punt on the Saints’ possession but Houston was stopped by the Saints on the Mustangs’ next possession. Briarcrest mounted a 76-yard drive that included a pass from Sherrod to Linder for 18 yards. Miller then ran 54 yards for a touchdown and Allen made it 14-0 with 1:05 left in the second quarter.
On the last play of the second quarter, Vezina kicked a 32-yard field goal.
In the third quarter Max Stegall made an interception and returned it 26 yards.
“When I got that interception it was awesome. I set a goal for myself that I’m going to get six interceptions this season and I’m at two. I feel like it helped our team out with momentum for sure,” he said.
Cooper Lomax, Houston linebacker and tight end, said that Stegall’s interception was a “turning point.”
“We were down 18 and came all the way back to be down 7,” he said.
The interception set up a Houston score. Salem hit Toney for a 20-yard touchdown pass with 5:22 left in third to pull the Mustangs within 14-9 and then 14-10 with Vezina’s extra point.
The Saints topped off a 64-yard drive when Sherrod threw a 36-yard touchdown pass to Miller with 46 seconds left in the third quarter. Allen kicked it to 21-10.
Later, Linder’s interception of Salem on Briarcrest’s 47.
The Saints had two penalties before Miller ran to the Houston 30. Sherrod passed to Linder to the 2. Sherrod then ran for the 2-yard touchdown and it was 27-10 before Allen’s extra point with 9:26 left in the game.
Salem’s passing helped the Mustangs narrow the lead. Salem threw completions to Toney and to Sisa before Sisa ran 21 yards for a touchdown with 8:16 left. Trailing 28-16 the Mustangs went for 2. Salem threw the conversion pass to Lomax and it was 28-18.
“On the play it’s like a fake run. I faked, block out and go into the flats. It’s a read,” said Lomax, a senior linebacker/ tight end.
The Mustangs narrowed the lead to 28-21 on a possession that had Momon get a first down at the Briarcrest 30. Facing fourth down and 10, Vezina kicked a 47-yard field goal with 3:05 left.
Will Stegall said, “We kicked the field goal, we were right back in it. We had the momentum. We just couldn’t finish.”
Stewart was pleased with his team’s effort.
“The fact this was the first real full four-quarter game our kids had to play (the Saints defeated Booker T. Washington 50-0 on Aug. 20) and they were cramping,” he said. “Look at how much we can get better at and we still won a football game against a very good football team. So that is a lot of promise for us. That is something for us to look really forward to about how we can go about fixing everything that we need to fix and get better at.”
“We need to be more consistent on offense. We know how to run the offense. We know what to do up front. We can’t have procedural penalties and get backed up. We need to be able to run the offense the way it is supposed to be run when we are running an RPO (run, pass option); when to pull it, when to keep it, when to throw, things like that. Don’t hurt yourself.”
Said Thomas, “We have to learn how to finish plays. We’ve got to play fundamentally sound and execute. The defense played well but didn’t finish a couple of plays and that bit us.
“The Stegalls played their hearts out like they always do. Brady Weatherly, Christian Crew, Ian Bullock played well. Barrett Glass played a good safety game. Our defensive line got after it all night. We did some good things defensively but we are going to find some things on film and clean it up.”
Lomax said, “We started off a little slow but in the second half we came up strong. I like how the game ended. We have got some momentum going into next week.”
Will Stegall said that Weatherly “had an awesome game. The defensive line had a great game. Max (Stegall) had an interception when we needed something positive for our team and that changed the momentum for our team.”
He thought Briarcrest’s big plays hurt the Mustangs.
Max Carroll said the Saints overcame their mistakes and kept their heads up to “keep fighting.”
“We have been doubted a lot this year. We block out everything to keep our minds in the right place, stay focused and work hard. We have some dogs. Keyron Crawford, a basketball player, came out here and plays. He knows football. You tell him to do something and he goes out there and does it. I really appreciate him for that. Our quarterback J.D. He is a new cat from Florida. He is a great asset to our team. I think we will be pretty solid throughout the season.”
Stewart said the Saints will have to clean up their penalties.
“We were off the field on a third down with a face mask call. We scored a touchdown and spike it and we had to kick off back off the penalty. You can’t put yourself in a hole. They are a good football team with good athletes. They are going to score points. We found a way to score more than they did and hold on at the end,” said Stewart, pleased with his defense and offensive plays.
“They kept getting them off the field in the third quarter. Then the big run Ahmad had. He is bottled up and he takes it to the house. That is a huge play there. Reed Linder two big third down catches. Max Carroll’s third down catch going out of bounds.
“We had a bunch of big catches toward the end. Ahmad’s touchdown catch that he had when J.D. was shuffling getting out of the pocket trying to make a play. When you’ve got people who can make a play with their feet like that move the pocket and create, that is something special.”
Stewart praised the play of Linder, Max Carroll, Derrick Carroll. All play both sides of the ball.
“Derrick Carroll was running the ball hard, at the end getting the big first downs. We said, ‘Hey man we can lean on you and get a first down when you need to.’ I don’t want to leave people out. Keyron Crawford is a kid that is playing so hard, going deep,” said Stewart.
“I go back to our offensive line. There are two bell cows up there there Wesley Davis and Nate Bledsoe. Those guys are just good. There was one time out there we picked up a blitz. I think it was either Wesley or Bledsoe. If you don’t pick up that blitz, if you don’t have the intelligence, the IQ to pick up that blitz you never make that touchdown. Those are little things that make a big difference.
“We got speed, we got guys that can catch it. We got guys that can throw it. We got a defense that is relentless. They run to the football, they tackle the football well. We force turnovers. When you force turnovers and create opportunities for your offense to score that’s huge. That is what we need our defense to be able to do, score some points for us because there are going to be nights when we just can’t on offense.”
Salem led the Mustangs completing 12 of 32 passes for 167 yards. Ben Stegall added 17 rushing yards, Will Stegall 10, Weatherly 10, Sisa 21.
Toney caught 5 passes for 101 yards, Zach Marsh 1 for 9, Will Stegall 3 for 27, Tristan Lurry 1 for 19, Lomax 2 for 5, Sisa 1 for 7 yards.
Crew led tacklers with 7. Ben Stegall had 3, Weatherly 6 including two for loss and a sack, Kavion Benton 6 tackles with one for a loss and a sack.
Will Stegall had a 24-yard punt return. Ben Stegall had two kickoff returns for 55 yards and Crew one for 7 yards.
For Briarcrest Wes Dabbs completed a pass for 9 yards. Clarkson had 3 rushes for 8 yards, Maddox Little one run for 30 yards.
Receiving Max Carroll had two catches for 33 yards, Caleb Donaldson one for 30 yards, Miller one for 36, Peyton Yates one for 12 yards.
Defensively the Saints were led by Devin Johnson who made 4 tackles, Linder 5, Miller Manguno had 4, Crawford 7, Hunter Morris 4, Jordan Wright 6, Presley Cole 5, Yates 4, Davis 5. Allen had 5 punts for 211 yards.
Houston’s defensive line starters against Briarcrest were tackles Tavis Shaw, Jeremiah Morrow, defensive end Kavion Benton, lineman Jackson Campbell. Offensive linemen were Luke Needham (left tackle, left guard), Connor Jones (left guard), Adam Grant center, T.J. Rogers right guard, Dylan Frulla right tackle.
Will Stegall said, “We are really young overall. The defense has got a lot of new guys. With being young we will make a few adjustments and we’ll be good.”
Lomax said, “Our defense played really good. Our offensive line blocked pretty good.”
For Briarcrest offensive starters against Houston were Davis (left tackle), Zach Green (left guard), Zeke Taylor (center), King Johnson (right guard), Bledsoe (right tackle). Defensively Jordan Wright, Crawford, Cole, plays along with Hunter Morris, Hayden Rooks, Jordan Bramlett, Trace Magro.
The Saints lost quarterback Michael Dallas to graduation. He is now a freshman playing baseball at the University of Kentucky.
“It is kind of different. Michael was very experienced with the offense, not saying that J.D. isn’t. He has control of our offense but Michael Dallas knew everything. He knew his reads. He was a very good runner. A very good thrower. He knew his stuff. He was a great quarterback for us last year but now J.D. and Blake have to step up and make good plays that Michael made last year,” said Max Carroll.
Stewart said, “Michael Dallas is a phenomenal football player, great athlete, great leader. The way I look at it I think about Blake Clarkson, a kid that was his backup and practiced with him every day. Michael was so good at teaching him and there tonight we need a shot in the arm and you bring in a guy like Blake. He comes in and does just what you need him to do and you relax J.D. because J.D. is putting a lot of pressure on himself to be the guy and he’s very talented. There is no doubt, people can see the ability he has. You go back to Michael Dallas. Every year you lose kids and you lose kids that are special. There’s a Mr. Football Finalist. We have had one every year for six years and you build it. I think we are so much better now that we’ve ever been because we have coached our kids up all these years. They know the system. They know what to expect, how to run the defense, how to run the offense. They know what to do. We have got a deeper group of kids that can play. I just hope and pray we have one (Mr. Football Finalist). I could care less about having one if we can go just a little farther and make the semifinals and state championship that is what we want to do.”
Clarkson said that Dallas taught him to be more vocal and that sometimes there is a need to get on to other players.
“He showed me how to practice full speed all the time and that makes games a lot easier when they feel like practice,” said Clarkson.
The game was not a region game for Houston.
“I think it’s very reasonable that we could win the region and make a run for state,” said Lomax.
Said Thomas, “Our goal is that we still want to win our region and that goal is still attainable.”
Linder, who said the Saints gained momentum from the big win over BTW, wants to win state.
“Everybody has been putting in the work, lifting, running, conditioning. We are all working as a team. We all love each other. We are ready to compete against anyone,” said Linder. “We are some dogs. We are ready to play and we don’t care who lines up in front of us. We’ll play anybody.”
Stewart wants to keep the rivalry with Houston going.
“It’s a one mile fun game that ought to be played every year. I told Coach Thomas we have got to play this every year. You are less than a mile apart. We could walk and go play the game. You are going to have a great crowd, have great energy. You are going to win or lose the game ever so often. That is just part of it. I can take losing a game when you play that hard, when you have that much energy and excitement in it. This is just a fun game. These kids got to church together. They hang out together.”
Stewart called Houston a “good football team. I think our kids are well-coached. I think they (Briarcrest) play hard. I think they get after it. I think they are close. I think they don’t care who gets the credit. I think they are unselfish. They are a lot of fun to be around.”
Said Clarkson, “Our team is so tight and the only thing we see in each other is the bond of a brother. The friendships that have been made will last after the lights go out and our Friday night days are over.”