Leroy coach Jason Massey watches his Bears during a 42-10 win over St. Luke’s in Leroy Friday night. It was Massey’s final game on the sideline this season before deploying for National Guard duty. (Willie Gray/Call News)
Leroy’s Jakavien Collins (5) and Jaquan Scott (13) sandwich St. Luke’s Turner Tillman during the Bears’ 42-10 win Friday night in Leroy. (Willie Gray/Call News)
By JIMMY WIGFIELD
LEROY — All the players involved in winning Leroy’s six state championships are enshrined for eternity on six plaques squeezed onto the Wall of Champions at the front gate of Farish Field at Palmer Stadium.
Unfortunately for St. Luke’s, several of those players jumped off their bronze-emblazened spaces on the 2022 plaque Friday night and let it be known it’s possible a bigger wall may need to be built.
Three big plays by some familiar names on offense, defense and special teams propelled the No. 1-ranked Class 1A Bears to a 42-10 rout of the Wildcats.
Quarterback Brayden Huebner found Jaquan Scott for a 51-yard touchdown pass, linebacker John Foster ran back an interception 52 yards for a touchdown and Malik Howell broke a 52-yard punt return for a third touchdown as undefeated Leroy sent coach Jason Massey off to his National Guard deployment with a decisive victory over the No. 8-ranked Class 2A Wildcats, who came into the game 5-0 for the first time in school history.
“We didn’t need to send coach out on a bad note,” said Huebner, the MVP of last year’s Class 1A state championship game. “We needed to win big.”
Massey, who is a non-commissioned officer with 30 years in the Guard, admitted he got emotional at the last game he’ll coach this season, especially when he stood with his players on the field for the National Anthem.
“It was definitely emotional,” said Massey, his voice wavering. “The National Anthem means a lot. The guys know I am particular about that, just showing that respect and realizing there are people all around the world defending that flag.
“These kids are like family. From the end of last year at the state championship, we started building with these kids. To go out with a victory was definitely a sweet going away present.”
Even St. Luke’s coach Ronn Lee got sentimental.
“We feel privileged to have played coach Massey in his last game,” he said.
Massey said the Wildcats provided a better litmus test than the final score indicated.
“Coach Lee’s got them going in the right direction,” he said. “They’re a quality opponent.”
In fact, the defending state champion Bears (4-0) — who have won 17 of their last 18 games — struggled to just 96 yards of total offense in the first half but began leaning on St. Luke’s with their running game in the second half and finished with 174 yards on the ground.
“We made some mistakes offensively and missed some blocking assignments,” Massey said. “Give credit to them for that. We were able to hit some plays and we scored in the kicking game and on defense and had a safety.”
After the safety, Damien Phillips returned the kick 51 yards to set up Huebner’s 12-yard scoring run in the first quarter.
Meanwhile, Leroy’s defense, which came into the game as the best in 1A against the score — allowing just 6.3 points per game — held the Wildcats to only 105 yards into the fourth quarter until Massey put his backups in.
“I’m proud of our defense,” Massey said. “We held them to three points basically and that was off a turnover.”
Huebner started the offensive scoring in the first quarter with his touchdown run after Timothy Parnell chased St. Luke’s quarterback Jeremy Menhennett out of the end zone and forced an intentional grounding penalty for a safety.
Huebner’s 51-yard pass to Scott on a slant and Foster’s 52-yard pick-six in the second quarter made it 21-3 at halftime.
“I read my coverage right and sat on the curl and it hit me right in the chest,” Foster said. “I saw the end zone and I had to score. That pick-six was for coach. … He told us he loves us and for us to keep playing the same game we’ve been playing.”
That’s what Lee saw — a traditional Bears team with playmakers and a sound defense.
“Their athletes do what they do — they make plays,” Lee said. “They do a great job. When they have the opportunity, they take advantage of it. But I’m proud of our kids. I don’t think they quit. It was a good learning experience. We’re certainly not disappointed in where we are. … And we wish them the best the rest of the year.”
Foster said he likes the way the rest of the year looks at the midway point, at which Leroy has outscored the opposition 157-29.
“I feel like we’ve got a really good team,” he said. “We definitely have a chance to go back-to-back.”
Howell’s 52-yard punt return in the third quarter made it 28-3, Howell added a 3-yard scoring run early in the fourth quarter and seventh-grader Ayden Tolbert added a spinning 20-yard TD run late in the game to finish an 82-yard, 14-play drive by the backup offense.
But until Huebner’s 51-yard scoring pass to Scott, the Bears had just 44 yards rushing. Then they went to an empty backfield and forced the Wildcats into spreading out with man-to-man coverage.
“The running game wasn’t working and he gave me the stutter slant and I took it on in,” Scott said.
Huebner said St. Luke’s blitzed to stop the run.
“They’re hard to run against,” Huebner said. “But when we went to the empty set, they were in man coverage.”
Leroy is now 91-4 since 2000 when scoring 40-plus points and 107-5 when allowing 10 or fewer points. It had also held the Wildcats scoreless for nine straight quarters over three seasons until Jameson Bryant kicked a 28-yard field goal in the second quarter following Huebner’s fumble.
It’s the 16th time the Bears have started a season 4-0 and it’s usually a good omen. From those 4-0 starts, they’ve won five of their six Blue Maps, made the semifinals four times and the state championship game two other times.
Huebner was 5-of-9 passing for 73 yards and added 63 yards on 12 carries. Howell had 68 yards on 15 carries.
Menhennett was 8-of-25 passing for 104 yards and St. Luke’s was just 2 of 13 on third down, with both conversions coming on pass-interference penalties.