Wednesday, September 06, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Jacksonville wary of revved Rockets

Leader sports editor

The Jacksonville Titans play their first home game of the football season when they host the Catholic Rockets. Both teams are coming off Week 1 victories. The Rockets utterly dismantled Sylvan Hills 44-37 at War Memorial Stadium. Jacksonville picked up a 25-21-road victory over Mills University Studies.

Jacksonville coach Barry Hickingbotham knows Catholic High presents a different sort of challenge from Mills, and a tougher one.

“They’re just solid all over the field,” Hickingbotham said. “They’re athletic, good size. They’re fundamentally sound, don’t make mistakes. It’s going to take a near perfect effort on our part.”

Catholic’s junior running back Samy Johnson is becoming a heralded Division I recruit since his sterling sophomore season. Last Friday, he picked up right where he left off last season. He only had 11 carries against Sylvan Hills, but he averaged more than12 yards per carry. He ran for 139 yards and two touchdowns, and also had a 29-yard kickoff return, and a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.

Hickingbotham has a special plan for how to stop No. 1.

“I think we’re going to sneak somebody into the locker room and steal his cleats,” Hickingbotham said. “He could be the best running back in the state. I don’t think we’re going to see anybody else on our schedule with one like him, and we’ve got a lot of athletic teams on our schedule.”

Jacksonville went to War Memorial Stadium last year and lost 31-6. It was one of only three wins all season for Catholic, which plays in the brutal 7A-Central. Still, the Rockets advanced to the playoffs, and gave perennial powerhouse Bentonville all it could handle in a 38-31 loss, despite losing Johnson to injury in the first half.

This year’s Rocket squad is not as big as that huge team last year, but Hickingbotham thinks they’re better.

“They’re not huge like last year,” Hickingbotham said. “But they’re much faster. They rally. That defense rallies to the football. We’re going to have to hold onto our blocks a little bit longer, a little bit better than we did. Looking at film, I see some things, some opportunities I think we’re going to have. It’s just going to come down to executing. We’ve got to be perfect.”

Jacksonville took good care of the football last week. One huge turnover on the Mills 1-yard line cost the Titans a chance to take the home team out of the game. But even that was a dubious one, according to Hickingbotham.

“I’m not sure,” Hickingbotham said. “It looked like the play was over. Even on film you can’t see the fumble. If it was a fumble it was a second effort sort of thing. Shawn Ellis ain’t going down on first or second contact hardly ever. He grinds for us. You love handing the ball to a kid like that and we’re going to do it plenty.”

Ellis carried 23 times for 130 yards last week.

Quarterback Harderrious Martin had five carries for 83 yards and two touchdowns, splitting time with junior Shavarious Curley at quarterback and in the defensive backfield.

Curley was solid at quarterback as well, but struggled on defense. Jacksonville gave up several long passes as the Comet receivers continually got behind the Titan defense.

“What I liked about Curley is that he was able to put those defensive mistakes behind him, and didn’t let it affect his play on offense,” Hickingbotham said. “He did a good job for us. He led us down the field at the end. We had a good drive there to run out the clock and finish off the game. He made some good reads. We didn’t ask him to throw it a lot, but he was on target for the most part. That was encouraging because we’re going to need him.”

Hickingbotham was especially pleased with the play of the defensive line, which will be particularly important next week in trying to stop the Rocket running game.

“Those four got after it,” Hickingbotham said. “(Kalon) McCoy was a difference maker in there. We felt good about him and (Marquez) Casey. But Marcus Etherly was in there playing real well. And Marquis Rollins on the weak end, he’d never played before. He’s just a great kid wanting to be involved, never been in the trenches like that and he did a great job.

“Those four guys ran the line, filled the gaps, put pressure on the quarterback. It was great effort and we’re going to need it again this Friday.”