The St. James football team (4-3, 3-1 FRC) had to face some adversity when they hosted Sullivan for Senior Night on Friday, Oct. 5. After building a comfortable lead in the half, the Tigers had to fight through injuries and a Sullivan comeback, but they were able to hold on for a 36-22 win.
The night started with some fun, as Grant Conway used his time during Senior Night festivities to announce where he'll be running track in college. The senior walked out with a balled up shirt and unveiled a Hawkeye, showing that he'll be headed to Iowa next fall. Conway made the decision a couple of weeks ago, but wanted to find a creative way to tell the St. James faithful.
"I just kind of sat down to try to think of how to do it," said Conway about his reveal. "I thought I could do it at Homecoming or I could just put it off a week and do it for Senior Night. I've known for a couple of weeks where I'm going, but I just wanted to make it special at the last home game."
Conway then got to star on the opening drive, as the Tigers shifted the star wide receiver to quarterback. He and Tyler Recker worked their way up the field running the option and Conway even connected on a pass to regular quarterback Tate Whitener. Conway seemed to cap off the drive with a touchdown, but it was called back for a hold. St. James was able to score a couple of plays later on a 13-yard run by Recker to give the Tigers a 6-0 lead. The St. James offense stalled out a bit and were held off the board for the rest of the quarter, but the Tiger defense held strong and they maintained that lead through the opening frame. The idea for Conway at quarterback started with a little fun in practice earlier in the week and it led to a new offensive package for the Tigers.
"They kinda came up with the idea, Tate and Grant were playing around after practice on Monday and they asked if we could tinker around with it," said head coach Josh Rodriguez on the new offensive package. "Grant used to be a quarterback in junior high and youth football. He throws the ball decently and he's got a lot of speed. We put that package in with him where he can run the ball and he can throw a little bit. He's extremely dangerous. It's just a nice little wrinkle to throw in this week and going forward I think that makes us that much more dangerous."
Conway said he used some of the energy from his announcement to help power the Tiger offense down the field on that opening drive.
"The announcement beforehand had me all hyped up and just the atmosphere, I was a little nervous, but I think it kinda helped get some energy in me and as we went down the field my nerves kind of went away," said Conway. "I think it was just a little something different to give a different look, so Sullivan would come out and be like 'what's going on?' and have to change their defense real quick. I think that definitely showed that they didn't know what to do with Recker and me, arguable the two most dominant offensive players getting back there."
The second quarter opened with a pair of fumbles. Sullivan fumbled the first snap of the quarter, but St. James gave the ball right back by fumbling a pitch on an option play. The Tiger defense then stepped up when Connor Gorrell grabbed a tipped pass for an interception. That helped spark the St. James offense as Whitener connected with Conway on a pair of long passes on their way to the end zone. The first put St. James on the 21, before the pair connected in the end zone to extend the St. James lead to 12-0.
St. James threw a pick of their own on the next drive, but the Tiger defense continued to play well to keep Sullivan out of the end zone. The Eagles' biggest scoring threat came with just under three minuted left in the half, as they worked their way into the St. James red zone. Once again, the Tiger defense made a big play, as Conway continued his great night with an interception. That set up the St. James offense to score another touchdown through the air, as Whitener found Nick Halbrook for an easy 62-yard score to stretch their lead to 18-0 with 2:30 left in the half. St. James wasn't done yet, but they needed to get a little creative. The Tigers were 42 yards from the end zone in the final seconds of the half and elected to run a final Hail Mary pass. Whitener was forced to scramble, but he fired a pass near the end zone on the right side of the field. Recker was able to work his way from the left side of the field to come up with a catch and found the end zone to extend the St. James lead to 24-0 at the half.
That's when things started to go against the Tigers. Sullivan struck first with a 43-yard run from Blaine Blankenship. Whitener then tried to find Conway on another long pass, but Issac Peregoy was able to slide in for an interception. They then worked their way down the field, before Levi Hurt punched in a one yard score to close the gap to 24-16. The Tigers then ran into more issues, as Whitener was forced to the sideline with an ankle injury. They then turned the ball over again, fumbling on the option. Sullivan then scored again on a 13-yard run by B. Blankenship, but a failed conversion let St. James hold onto a 24-22 lead. St. James needed a spark and they found that on the first play of the ensuing drive, as Recker took the handoff 65-yards for a score. The PAT was blocked, but St. James extended their lead to 30-22, They took that lead into the fourth quarter.
The Tigers finished strong with a great fourth quarter. Offensively, they scored one more touchdown int he fourth. That touchdown nearly came on a run from Recker, but it was called back for a hold. That didn't slow down the Tigers, as Whitener instead found Rustin Branum for a 16-yard score. Defensively, St. James came up with two interceptions. One came from Jaden Roark and a second came from Sage Gibson on the way to victory. Recker made a rare appearance on the defensive side of the ball and helped seal the win with a big tackle for a loss on fourth down with just over two minutes left in the game. The Tigers went on to finish off the win 36-22. Coach Rodriguez was proud of how his team locked in and braved the Sullivan comeback on their way to the win.
"Hats off to Sullivan and their kids, they came out and struck us in the mouth in the third quarter to make it a ball game and our kids were a little stunned. I'm just so proud of them. I'm so proud of our boys and how they responded and took over in the fourth quarter," said coach Rodriguez. "There's not much of a better feeling than that to be able to come back from adversity and that's something that we've struggled with a little bit. When adversity hit, we didn't handle it well. It's nice to see that tonight that we handled that very well and we came back and took care of business."
The adversity wasn't just on the scoreboard. Recker missed some time in the second half with cramps and Whitener spent some time on the sideline after rolling his ankle. Whitener was hobbled for most of the second half, but he refused to let what could possibly be his last home game end with him watching from the sideline.
"It was a big deal," said the senior quarterback. "I really wanted to get back in there and finish it out. It meant a lot to me, playing out here for four years. I wanted to finish strong."
Coach Rodriguez appreciated seeing that fight out of his star players, as well.
"That's a testament to how tough they are," said the Tiger head coach. "They're going to be sore tomorrow, I bet, but a soreness like that is going to feel good, because a victory soreness is always good. We'll have a lot of injury prevention and icing this week, but it's going to be just fine."
The Tigers had several big performances in the contest. Conway did a little bit of everything on the night. On the offensive side of the ball, he had one 25-yard pass, he ran for 75 yard one 11 carries, while catching two passes for 75 yards and a score. Defensively, he had an interception and two tackles. He was glad to have a chance to shine on Senior Night.
"It was a great game. I got to play a little bit of everything. I got to get in at some QB, got to play wide receiver, running back," said Conway. "It was a great night and a great way to end possibly our last home game ever."
But Conway was far from the only star. Recker ran for 175 yards and two touchdowns, while catching two passes for 49 yards and a score. Whitener completed eight passes for 209 yards, two touchdowns and two picks, while also catching one pass for 25 yard. Halbrook added three catches for 75 yards and a score, while Branum chipped in his 16-yard score. Defensively, Gibson racked up the tackles with 20 to go along with an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Gorrell had eight tackles and a pick, while Roark added seven tackles and an interception. Branum had 13 tackles and a sack.
St. James will now look to carry that momentum with them on the road for the rest of the regular season. They'll head to Union next week, before capping off the regular season at Pacific.