Football is more than just about making the playoffs.
Every team has the goal of going on to the postseason, but not every team makes that goal. And when it doesn’t, it almost can learn more. How is it going to respond? Is it going to lay down and die or is it going to keep fighting?
Benjamin Russell’s senior class set the tone for making sure there was no letup for the Wildcat football team. The seniors proved that Friday night as they came out firing on both sides of the ball and it resulted in a 14-0 shutout of Valley.
“It means everything to us,” BRHS receiver Ryan Willis said. “I know we didn’t make the playoffs but we didn’t give up. We played hard. So it means a lot really.”
Not only was it a joyous occasion for the seniors, who didn’t have a whole lot to celebrate this year, it also carried down to the underclassmen who are returning next year.
“It’s big in a lot of different ways — obviously to send the older guys off and also get the young guys to see that,” Wildcat coach Kevin Smith said. “I’m looking around here and there’s just as much emotion in the juniors’ eyes as the seniors over here, and that’s a positive sign. We don’t know right now how good we’re going to be next year or what the depth is going to be, but it is good to come out and finish on a positive note.”
There’s no doubt about the fact Valley (6-4) was limited offensively. The Rams were playing without starting quarterback Tirus Patten, who wasn’t even listed on Friday night’s roster, and they also were down Willie Baker for most of the second half after he went down with an injury at the start of the third quarter.
But with the way Benjamin Russell (5-5) played up front especially, there’s no guarantee anyone would’ve made a difference for Valley. The Wildcats put on a ton of pressure to quarterback Jeremy Harmon and the Rams finished with 12 negative plays in addition to a pair of turnovers.
“We’ve committed to playing man-to-man coverage and when you do that, you have to get pressure and be sound on the backside,” Smith said. “If something slips through the front, that means there’s nobody back and we didn’t give (Harmon) very much time.
“They didn’t have their starting quarterback but from what I said, this guy threw the ball than him. He wasn’t quite the threat at running but I didn’t really think it would’ve mattered with the way Pokey (Norris), Onaje (Brooks) and Colby (Ford) played and Joe (Young), who was playing both ways.”
Benjamin Russell broke through for the first strike on a 1-yard carry by Hezekiah Hunter and led 7-0 into the second half. But what really fired up the Wildcats was an interception by Brooks. He picked off Harmon late in the third quarter and the big man ran it 80 yards to the house. The pick-six was negated due to a block in the back, but from that point on, it was clear Valley was deflated.
“That lit a fire under us,” Willis said. “We knew that (Brooks) was going hard. He’s a junior so if he’s going hard, he’s doing it for us. That really just got us hyped up. Even though it got called back, the whole sideline and everybody in the stands went crazy.”
Brooks did set up the final touchdown, as he recovered a Valley fumble at the 6-yard line and Hunter capitalized on the very next play.
As well as the defense played, the Wildcat offense also finally seemed to find its footing. In addition to some hard and fast running by Hunter and Carl Russell, BRHS quarterback Carter Smith finished with 94 passing yards and found seven different receivers.
“I think that was really key to the game,” said Willis, who had a pair of receptions. “We’re a running team and we know that. But on film, they see us run so whenever we can hit a slant or a comeback or even a deep shot, it means a lot. They have to respect that so they have to spread out. That lets us run it up the middle so they don’t have the box so compact.”
Although the win was bittersweet for the Benjamin Russell senior class, those guys would rather have it that way than just ending on a bitter note.
“It feels good,” Norris said. “All I can say is it was my last time playing with my teammates and I really enjoyed them. I’m going to miss everything about it.”