Anytime a team has new pieces, it can take them a game or two to get into a rhythm and that showed a little bit for St. James when they made the trip down to Salem to open their season on Friday, Aug. 24.
The first quarter was all defense in the battle of the Tigers. St. James went three and out on their first drive, which was instantly followed by the only big play of the quarter when Salem's Sam Ball ripped off a 75 yard run from his own 15 all the way down to the opposing 10. Salem's Chandler Gray would punch in a touchdown a few plays later to take an 7-0 lead. After that, the defenses held strong and the rest of the first quarter came and went without much movement on either side.
The St. James offense failed to find their groove for most of the first half, but the Tigers found a spark in the final minutes. Tyler Recker became a one man wrecking crew in his first varsity game, capping off a late second quarter drive with a 19-yard score. He followed that by punching in the two-point conversion and suddenly the Tigers found themselves with an 8-0 lead. Unfortunately, that momentum didn't last long.
Salem followed the St. James touchdown with a long drive that seemed to stall at the 30-yard line. That's when Nick Holliday stepped up and buried a 47 yard field goal with 34 seconds left in the opening half to put Salem on top 10-8. St. James tried to sneak in a late touchdown before the half, but the decision backfired as the first snap of their drive turned into a pick six by Gray. Salem's 8-7 lead turned into a 17-8 deficit in a matter of seconds.
The Tigers could've gone into the break deflated, but St. James was determined to fight their way back into the game in the second half. St. James got started on the defensive end when Sage Gibson forced a fumble, which was recovered by Broc Chitwood two minutes into thesecond half. The Tigers were then finally able to connect on a big pass midway through the third quarter. Tate Whitener was able to hit Grant Conway on a short pass and the St. James speedster took it from there. Conway found the sideline and had nothing but room to run on the way to a 92 yard touchdown to cut the Salem lead to 17-14. After that, the St. James defense came through in the clutch and forced another Salem fumble with just over four minutes left to play in the third. St. James then trudged down the field and made it to the 15-yard line before the quarter came to an end.
St. James opened the final quarter with a prime chance to take the lead for the first time in the second half, but that opportunity slipped away at the goal line. The Tigers attempted a direct snap to Recker, but the ball was snapped high and left. Salem was able to jump on the ball at the 12-yard line and squash St. James' scoring opportunity.
After a scoreless Salem possession, St. James got the ball back with another chance to retake the lead. Unfortunately, just over a minute into their possession Recker coughed up the ball and Salem was able to recover. That fumbled would prove to be costly, as Gray was able to go 67-yards for a touchdown with under five minutes left to play. Trailing 24-14, St. James refused to give up on the contest. After another Whitener interception, the Tiger defense stepped up to give St. James one more shot. The Tigers charged down the field and finally found the end zone on a pass from Whitener to Branum with 18 seconds left to play. A missed point after attempt meant that the Tigers needed to recover an onside kick and find the end zone to seal their comeback. St. James completed the first part of that challenge, jumping on top of the onside kick, but a pass to Conway fell incomplete and the St. James comeback fell short 24-20.
While the Tigers weren't able to make a comeback, St. James head coach Josh Rodriguez was proud of the fight his team showed in the entire second half.
"We could've easily come out deflated. That was a pretty quick turnaround. We felt pretty good about ourselves going into the end of the second quarter, then we had that quick 10 point swing that really could've killed us right there, but our kids kept fighting," said coach Rodriguez. "I was very proud of how we came out in the second half and marched it right down the field."
On of the standout performances from St. James came from Recker running the ball. He finished the game with 119 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown on the ground. Coach Rodriguez hopes to be able to rely on him all season.
"Tyler has come a long way in just a couple of weeks," said the Tiger head coach. "He's going to be a go-to guy as the season goes a long. I'm very proud of him, but we've got some work to do."
Outside of Recker and Conway, who finished the game with five catches for a 137 yards and a touchdown, the rest of the offense struggled to get into a consistent rhythm. Whitener completed 11 of his 25 attempts for a 175 yards, 92 of which came on the touchdown to Conway. He threw two touchdowns, two interceptions and fumbled once. While the offense needs to fine tune some things, they have a lot of athleticism and should be able to straighten things out after shaking off some first game jitters for a couple of players.
"Just a lot of reps," said coach Rodriguez on what it will help to help get Whitener and the Tiger passing game going. "Just a lot of reps and confidence in his receivers to be able to catch the ball. And that will come, this was his first varsity game and it showed a little bit...that stuff will work itself out over time. I think this will be the anomaly, getting the jitters out. He'll get things right."
While the offense struggled at times to get going, the St. James defense was great for most of the night. St. James allowed two big plays that culminated with touchdown, but outside of those two hiccups the Tigers were lights out. Gibson led the charge with 14 tackles and two forced fumbles for the Tigers. Chitwood added another 11 tackles and a sack. Branum added two tackles for a loss to go along with his late offensive touchdown. Coach Rodriguez loved what he saw out of his defense in their first outing.
"I think our defense played exceptionally well," said the St. James head coach. "They had their two big runs, one at the beginning of the game and that one killer right at the end with the quarterback getting out on us. It was just option responsibilities and we had one slip up on a play. Otherwise, I thought our defense played very well. It was our offense that kept putting up in a hole."
Coach Rodriguez doesn't think he'll have to do much to pick his team up after a tough loss. The Tigers are hungry to get back onto the gridiron and get that first win of the season.
"I think they already have the taste in their mouth," said the Tiger head coach. "Next week's opponent is going to get struck pretty well and they're going to come after it.
The Tigers come back to their home turf to host Perryville this Friday.