St. Joe edges Lafayette, heads to conference championship

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D.J. Oliver’s 65-yard fourth quarter scoring run helped lift the Port St. Joe Tiger Sharks to a dramatic come-from-behind 21-20 win against the visiting Lafayette Hornets last Friday night at Shark Stadium, to advance to the Sunshine State Athletic Conference finals.

Lafayette, from the town of Mayo, had taken a 20-15 lead with 4:51 remaining in the third quarter on a 2-yard run by senior quarterback Mario Thomas, who gashed the Shark defense for 193 yards and one score through the air, to complement his 80 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

The game began with the Hornet defense forcing a St. Joe punt on their first series, but senior linebacker Aiden Gainer’s interception returned the ball to the Shark offense at the Lafayette 29-yard line a few minutes later.

After three runs by Oliver, a junior, and an offside penalty gave the Sharks a first-and-goal at the 3-yard line, junior P.J. Jones completed the scoring drive. Coach Tanner Jones chose to go for two following another Hornet offside infraction, and Oliver’s run gave Port St. Joe an 8-0 lead at the 6:25 mark in the first quarter.

Neither team could manage a first down for the remainder of the quarter, as both defenses forced punts along with failed fourth down tries.

A shared sack by junior LaJuan Zaccaro, Jones, and sophomore Kamari Jackson ended the first quarter.

St. Joe faithful held their collective breaths during the next Shark series when senior quarterback Colin Amison stayed prone on the ground after being sacked by Hornet senior Max Byrd on a third-down play to force the third Shark punt of the half.

But Amison, who wears a brace on his left knee, would return to action in the next offensive series, to the relief of the home crowd and his teammates.

Following the St. Joe punt, Thomas used his legs along with two Shark penalties to lead the Hornets to two first downs, but Gainer once again stifled the Hornet hopes when he forced, and recovered, a Lafayette fumble.

However, on the very next play, the Sharks returned the favor by coughing up the ball to Hornet senior Montae Gillyard at midfield.

After a chop block penalty gave Lafayette a first-and-25 at their own 25-yard line, Thomas fired a pass to senior Nic’kel Freeman who snagged the ball and ran untouched for a 75-yard scoring play.

Although St. Joe blocked junior Carter Higginbotham’s extra point try, the Shark lead had shrunk to 8-6 with 6:45 left before halftime.

Taking four minutes off the clock, the Sharks marched 80 yards behind three Amison completions and strong runs by Jones and Oliver, who completed the drive with his 9-yard score from the wildcat position.

Following the extra point by junior placekicker Christian Peacock, Port St. Joe increased its lead to 15-6 with less than three minutes before the half.

Aided by two St. Joe penalties, Lafayette marched all the way to the Shark 8 yard line before Coach Jones called his final time out with only 33 seconds on the clock.

On the next play, senior Nick Jefferson ended the threat with his interception in the end zone, and the half ended with no further scoring.

After the Port St. Joe Band of Gold exited the field following their fine halftime show, it would take Lafayette only five plays to find the end zone and close the gap.

On a second-and-12 from the Hornet 34, Thomas threw a dart to junior Karlos Murphy on a quick slant, and Murphy appeared to be on his way to paydirt.

Once again, Aiden Gainer rose to the occasion, this time walking the speedy Murphy down at the Shark 13-yard-line after a 63-yard gain.

For the game, Gainer had 11 tackles (three solo) along with his interception and fumble recovery.

Three plays later, Thomas scored from the 1, and Higginbotham’s extra point made the score 15-13 in favor of Port St. Joe with 8:54 in the third quarter.

It was at this point of the game, prior to the Hornet kickoff, that attention would be diverted to the Shark sideline. Freshman Ardarien Shackleford, who had returned on his own power, collapsed.

Both teams huddled on their sidelines while first responders quickly leaped into action and secured Shackleford to a gurney before rolling him to a waiting ambulance.

Everyone let out a collective sigh of relief when “Sugar” raised his right arm and gave a thumbs up to the crowd. Taken to Sacred Heart hospital in Port St. Joe, he would be released that night after receiving care for what, at the time of printing, was an unknown injury.

Still unclear is the status of junior lineman Sailor Tull, who turned an ankle in the first quarter. “I hope it’s nothing serious,” said Jones. “He’s a big part of what we do on both sides of the ball.”

Perhaps a bit shaken by Shackleford’s injury, St. Joe failed to gain a first down after the kickoff, and senior Justice Peacock punted for the fourth time during the game.

On this possession, Lafayette put together a seven-play, 54-yard drive to take the lead. After Thomas scored from the 2-yard line and Higginbotham kicked the extra point, the Hornets led 20-15 at the 4:51 mark of the third quarter.

Port St. Joe overcame two fourth down plays during their next drive, taking 13 plays and consuming nearly six minutes of game time, but three consecutive incomplete passes resulted in Lafayette reclaiming possession at their own 24 yard line just after the final quarter began.

It would be at this point that the Tiger Shark defense asserted themselves and forced a three-and-out, giving the St. Joe offense possession at the Shark 32 yard line.

On a third-and-8, Oliver followed his blockers to the left, then reversed back to the right and it was off to the races for a 65-yard scoring jaunt.

The 2-point try failed, leaving the Sharks clinging to a one-point lead with 9:26 remaining in the game.

It would be during this next Lafayette possession that perhaps the defensive play of the game occurred.

After gaining 26 yards on three running plays, the Hornets faced a second-and-1 situation at the Shark 43-yard line. Thomas dropped back to pass, but Justice Peacock and Kamari Jackson combined to drop him for a seven yard loss.

The Hornets decided to punt on fourth down, and the Sharks regained control at their own 15 yard line with 6:45 left to play. Oliver and company made sure that Lafayette would not get the ball back.

On the third play of the drive, Oliver burst up the middle for 36 yards, and only Thomas’ shoestring tackle prevented another Shark touchdown.

Gaining two first downs during this final possession, St. Joe milked the clock down to 1:10 to force the Hornets to use their third time out with the Sharks facing a third down.

Oliver’s next run resulted in another first down and allowed the Sharks to go into a victory formation as the final seconds ticked off.

Although the Hornet defense held Oliver to 45 yards on the ground for the first half, the talented junior running back returned to form in the second half and finished the night with 169 yards on 21 carries, two touchdowns and one 2-point try.

Oliver also contributed a whopping 19 tackles on defense, four being solo. Zaccaro had 10 tackles, including two for losses while Justice Peacock had nine tackles, including his important sack. Sophomore Uwenses Benedict added two tackles for losses to the defensive cause.

P.J. Jones gained 28 yards and one score, while Amison was limited to 79 passing yards on 10 of 23 attempts by the stingy and swarming Hornet secondary.

Jones said Lafayette had “probably the most speed we’ve faced this year. They played hard, and they definitely won the game up the middle on us. Their nose guard (#55 Emanuel Watkins) gave us fits tonight.”

Jones complimented his own defense for their play, saying “it takes everybody to win the game, and I think everybody made the plays they needed to make when they needed to make them. I couldn’t be happier.”

This Friday, Nov. 5, the Tiger Sharks make the three-and-a-half hour bus ride to take on the 3-5 Dixie County High School Bears, 57-20 winners over Freeport, for the SSAC Big Bend Brawl Championship.

“That’s like a playoff football game,” said Jones. “We’re going to play another really good, hard-nosed, come right at you football team. We’re definitely going to get our fill before the FHSAA playoffs begin.”

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