The St. James football team faced off against Buffalo in the second round of Districts on Friday, Nov. 2. The match was back and fourth for four quarters, but a late run by Buffalo put St. James' season to an end with a final score of 50-36.
St. James got out to a hot start with two quick touchdowns. The Tigers needed less than a minute to get on the board, as Tyler Recker broke free for a 60-yard score. Later in the first, Tate Whitener found Nick Halbrook for an 11-yard score, which extended the St. James lead to 14-0.
As much as the Tigers dominated the first quarter, Buffalo punched back in the second. First Jamen Smith hit Derek Smith for a six-yard score. Coltin Henderson followed with a two-yard strike, before J. Smith found Bradley Hosiner for an eight-yard touchdowns with just 33 seconds left in the half, giving Buffalo their first lead of the game at 21-14 at the half. Turnovers plagued St. James throughout the game, but the second quarter was the back breaker. They missed out on some key points in the second quarter, as Whitener seemed to be stopped at the one yard-line, but the play wasn't whistled dead and Buffalo forced the ball out and returned it deep into Tiger territory. The St. James defense made a great stop to keep points of the board, but an interception but Buffalo right back in position to score. Those little things plagued St. James in a back and forth ball game. St. James ended up turning the ball over a total of four times, as Whitener fumbled twice and threw two interceptions. Three of those four turnovers eventually led to Buffalo points.
"Turnovers happen and we have to eliminate those," said head coach Josh Rodriguez. Those definitely played a factor in the game and there's no excuses about them, but definitely not happy about how some of the things worked out."
St. James then came out firing in the second half, as Zach Davis had a strip sack on the first offensive play of the half which St. James recovered on the one-yard line. Recker quickly punched in a touchdown and a two-point conversion by Whitener gave St. James a 22-21 lead.
"I think they knew how that lead slipped away. It wasn't necessarily the other team beating us, it was a combination of all sorts of things happening and to put it easily they were mad," said coach Rodriguez on his team's mentality to open the second half. "They came out playing like it and between the kickoff that Recker put on the four- or five-yard line and then the next play Zach Davis made an incredible hit on the quarterback, sacked him at the one and forced him to fumble. It was just a great play and that seemed to energize us for the whole half."
They maintained that lead until just past the mid-way point in the third, when J. Smith punched in a one-yard touchdown. Buffalo then converted for two-points to take a 29-21 lead. St. James came back with a touchdown of their own, as Recker bowled into the the end zone for his third touchdown of the game. St. James went for two, but failed and went into the fourth quarter trailing 29-28.
The Tigers couldn't slow down the Buffalo offense in the third, as the Bison opened the fourth with a 27-yard pass from J. Smith to Hosiner. St. James seemed to respond instantly, as Recker returned the ensuing kickoff for a touchdown, but it was called back for a penatly. That didn't slow down the Tigers though, as they only needed a minute to score, as Recker caught a 56-yard pass from Whitener four minutes into the fourth quarter. Recker then punched in a two-point conversion to tie the game at 36. Buffalo took the game over from there, as Smith hit Levi Phillips for a 61-yard score, before Henderson ran in a nine-yard touchdown to ice the victory for Buffalo with 4:43 left in the game. The Bison won the game 50-36.
"The kids played really hard, some things just didn't bounce our way and Buffalo made a couple of really amazing plays there in the fourth quarter that normally just don't happen and their kids made excellent catches," said coach Rodriguez after the game. "They kind of robbed our (defensive back) of an interception and took it for a touchdown, then they just made another spectacular throw in the corner of the end zone to kind of seal the deal with triple coverage. You couldn't ask our kids to be in better spots, it was just the ball bounced Buffalo's way and not ours."
St. James forced J. Smith to beat them through the air and not with his legs and the Buffalo quarterback made some strong plays in response to make things tough for the Tiger defense.
"I think we brought some different things that they hadn't seen all year and defensively, we were bottling him up pretty well on the run. He had a couple of nice runs that put his yardage up there, but we really did a good job of keeping him inside the box and playing man coverage," said Rodriguez. "They just threw it up and tried to make plays with their receivers and our DBs were in excellent position most of the night and they just made some really good catches. Smith is a real deal at quarterback and I don't think people have challenged him to throw as much as we did Friday night and he did a really good job of putting the ball where it needs to be."
Recker has a spectacular game for the Tigers with 151 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, while catching two passes for 64-yards and another score.
"Tyler has been huge for us all year," said the St. James head coach. "They tried to load the box on us and take him away and they didn't do a very good job of it, because he pretty much did what he wanted."
Whitener added another 183 yards and two touchdowns through the air, while rushing for another 43 yards. Halbrook led the team in receiving with four catches for 103 yards. Defensively, Sage Gibson led the team in tackles with 14. Zach Davis had the team's only sack, while adding five tackles and a forced fumble. Rustin Branum, Logan Ives and Connor Gorrell each had seven tackles.
While St. James didn't end up coming away with the win, coach Rodriguez was proud of the way his team fought adversity all night long. In his eyes, this team has come a long way since week one.
"Absolutely, this team has grown so much," said the Tiger coach. "A lot of kids that were fresh varsity faces at the beginning of the year had to step up and play and they got better week after week.
"By the time we played Buffalo week 11, we're playing the best football we've played all year. Even defensively we played pretty well, their kids just made great plays," continued coach Rodriguez. "The growth of these kids is really important because a lot of those kids are underclassmen that had a lot of growth that made our whole team turn a corner and play consistent."