Sharks salute 'class that went to war'

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What began as a night of celebration ended in disappointment as the visiting South Walton Seahawks handed Port St. Joe its first loss of the football season by a score of 40-36.

In a pre-game ceremony, the Tiger Shark faithful honored the Class of 1941, the "class that went to war," 80 years after the team won Port St. Joe's first ever state championship to cap an undefeated season.

Family and friends of the players, manager, and coach made their way to mid-field to join Gulf County School Superintendent Jim Norton and Assistant Principal Ashley Summerlin as announcer Teedy Nobles read about each member.

The final name read belonged to the last surviving member of the '41 team,  "reluctant hero" George Wimberly, who, at 94, rode a cart onto the field as the crowd gave him a rousing standing ovation. 

Wimberly, who served in the Merchant Marines and the U.S. Navy during the war, earned a Purple Heart during his time in service.   The crowd roared as he threw out the first ball to Tiger Shark receiver Nick Jefferson, and then the game began.

Led by the arm, and legs, of quarterback Kemper Hodges, the Seahawks took a 3-0 lead on a 27-yard field goal by junior kicker Zander Cobb, the first points given up by the Shark defense this season.

But St. Joe would quickly answer that when Colin Amison found the speedy Jefferson for a 47-yard touchdown. 

Christian Peacock's extra point try gave the home team a 7-3 lead with 5:01 remaining in the first quarter.

For the game, Jefferson would haul in eight receptions for (unofficially) 165 yards and three touchdowns.  He would also lead the team with 11 tackles on defense.

After forcing a Cobb punt, St. Joe found its rhythm and put together a drive of more than four minutes to increase the lead when D.J. Oliver ran the final five yards.  Peacock's kick gave the Sharks a 14-3 lead with slightly more than a minute gone in the second quarter.

Once again, Oliver was on his game as he ran the ball 18 times for (unofficially) 166 yards, two scores, and two 2-point conversions.  The multi-talented back also was in on 10 tackles from his linebacker position, three for losses.

Holding the ball for more than five minutes, and aided by a roughing the passer penalty, South Walton again relied on Cobb for three more points, this time from 29-yards out to whittle the lead down to 14-6.

A fluke interception at the 3:09 mark gave South Walton another chance before halftime.  Jefferson made a valiant effort to secure the Amison pass by juggling it twice before it caromed into the waiting hands of Seahawk defender Pearce Spurlin at the Shark 38.

This time, Hodges led South Walton to the end zone in only four plays, the final eight yards on a pass to the 6-foot 6-inch  Spurlin, who as a junior has already committed to the University of Georgia.

A successful 2-point try tied the game at 14, and the half ended shortly afterwards.

Following an entertaining halftime show by both bands, Port St. Joe would strike quickly to take the lead once again.

On the second play from scrimmage, Oliver burst up the middle virtually untouched and scampered 67 yards for the tie-breaker.  Although the extra point was no good, the Sharks led 20-14.

One of the key plays of the game happened on the ensuing Shark kickoff.  Cleanly fielding the squib kick on one hop, Garrett Fancher would not be caught until he reached the St. Joe 18-yard-line. 

It would take only four plays before the Seahawks scored, this time with Hodges doing it himself from three yards out. 

Surprisingly, the usually reliable Cobb pulled his extra point kick wide left for the first miss of his high school career.   The game was once again tied, 20-20, with 9:48 on the clock in the third quarter.

A second key to the game took place a few plays into the next Shark drive.  Fighting for additional yardage, Oliver inexplicably lost the ball and the Seahawks recovered at the Shark 46.

As if to amplify the theory that bad things happen in threes, the Sharks committed a defensive holding penalty  on what would have been a drive-ending fourth down play. 

Two plays later, Hodges found Spurlin again, this time from 20 yards out.  Cobb's kick gave South Walton a 27-20 lead.

After a drive that lasted for nearly four minutes, St. Joe turned the ball over on downs at its own 45-yard line. 

Hodges completed three passes during the next Seahawk drive to put the ball on the Shark 3-yard line, where Elijah Ramirez would find the left pylon for the score.  Cobb's kick increased the lead to 34-20 just a minute into the final quarter.

The teams exchanged interceptions, with Shark LaJuan Zaccaro's pick giving the ball back to St. Joe, returning the ball 36 yards to the South Walton 22.  On fourth down, Amison found Jefferson for a 16-yard score, and after Oliver's successful 2-point run, the lead had been cut to 34-28 with 9:28 remaining.  

 The Seahawks came up empty on their next possession, despite taking more than four minutes off the clock.  Cobb's 32-yard field goal attempt was wide, but St. Joe could not advance and lost the ball on downs at their own 18-yard line. 

During this drive, an errant pass sailed over the head of a wide-open Jefferson who would have been able to waltz into the end zone untouched.

Using his legs, Hodges increased the Seahawk lead only two plays later, scoring from the 4-yard line.  The 2-point try failed, but their lead of 40-28 came with only 3:01 on the clock.

Refusing to concede, the Shark combination of Amison and Jefferson struck once again on the first play after the kickoff.

Amison fired a short out to Jefferson, who eluded the first defender and then put on the jets for the remaining 50 yards down the left sideline to complete a 55-yard touchdown play.

Head Coach Tanner Jones decided to go for two when the Seahawks jumped offside during the extra point, and once again Oliver came through to make the score 40-36, but the Sharks had only 2:41 left.  

With the St. Joe hopes riding on a successful onside kick, Seahawk Maddox Porter dashed those when he pounced on the ball.

Having no more time outs, St. Joe could not stop the clock.  Allowing the play clock to tick down to single digits, Hodges ran for two plays before going into the victory formation as the game ended.

Although disappointed at the Sharks' first loss of the season, Jones said that "I know we gave up 40 points, but our defense played out of their minds tonight.  I was extremely proud of them, (especially) proud of LaJuan Zaccaro," whose task for the game was defending the taller Spurlin.

"That kid (Spurlin) is a Georgia commit, and LaJuan held him (to five receptions)," said Jones.   

Besides his interception, Zaccaro also broke up three passes.

The coaches assigned Chance Gainer and P.J. Jones to cover Seahawk running back Cade Roberts, who has committed to play next year for the University of South Florida. 

"He didn't hurt us," said Jones, "What hurt us was the quarterback.  Number 4 (Hodges) is a great player, (who  has had) no college offers. 

"It's beyond me why he doesn't.  He's one of the better quarterbacks around," Jones said..

"Although we didn't have things go our way tonight," Jones said. "I am very proud of the team.  There are some things to correct (before next week's game against Bay) but I'm happy with our tackling, with how our guys are very physical, and with our blocking."

Despite being weary, "we had a chance at the end, and that's all we can ask for."  

Another thing to ask for is the return of star receiver Dakota Quinn, who has missed most of the season following surgery after an early injury.  "We're hoping he's back by the playoffs," said Jones.

The Sharks will work to get back on the winning track when they face Bay High on Friday night at Shark Stadium.  Game time is 7:30 p.m. ET.

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