In the eyes of Long Reach coach Jamie Willis, Jose Ribalta looks and acts like a whole new quarterback.

A transfer from Florida, Ribalta wasn’t named the starter at the beginning of the 2018 season but eventually took the job and ran with it, earning second-team All-Howard County honors and throwing for 1,118 yards and 11 touchdowns. Since then, Willis has seen his signal caller become the leader he thought he could be.

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“He’s grown. He's taken charge of this program and doing the things that we asked of him,” Willis said. “... I think he’s probably the best quarterback in the county. People might argue, but he’s an unbelievable young man.”

Ribalta lived up to his coach’s praise on Friday night, as the senior completed 9 of 18 passes to five different receivers for 230 yards and two long touchdowns in a 13-0 victory at Reservoir.

His right arm and big-play ability was much needed against a Gators team that bottled up the Lightning’s run game. Running backs Jordan Perry (12 carries, 36 yards) and Loius Valentine IV (12 carries, 28 yards) combined for just 2.6 yards per carry and moved the chains twice the entire game, one of which came on a 20-yard run by Perry on the final drive.

The lack of a rushing attack didn’t matter much with Ribalta leading the air raid. After a three-and-out on its first drive, Long Reach (1-0 Howard County, 1-1) started at its own 16 but needed just one play to find the end zone, as Ribalta moved in the pocket and found Tyler Kimball (2 receptions, 91 yards, TD) running a slant over the middle for an 84-yard catch-and-run score.

He showed off his accuracy and arm strength on their next touchdown two drives later. He floated a perfect pass down the right sideline to Rashuad Littlejohn (4 receptions, 78 yards, TD) for a 40-yard completion. Ribalta finished the first half with three completions for 163 yards; Perry and Valentine IV had 16 yards on 11 carries.

Willis admitted he was concerned — “without a doubt” — about how the passing game would fare with first-team All-County wide receiver Chris Martin Jr. out for the second straight week with a hamstring injury. Big plays from Littlejohn and Kimball, who Willis said “just stuck with it” after barely seeing the field last year, put Willis’ worries to rest for at least one night.

“We got guys stepping up and Jose’s throwing the hell out of the ball,” Willis said. “So we got to be happy. We fix that run game it can be pretty crazy.”

Reservoir (0-1, 0-2) couldn’t find an answer against the Lightning’s defense, which keyed in on the run between the tackles. Darius Ellerbe (13 carries, 71 yards; 2 receptions, 54 yards) had several big plays — he accounted for all four Gators first downs in the second half, including a 41-yard catch to the Long Reach 6-yard line — but they couldn’t manage to break through the goal line.

The Reservoir offense went backwards after getting inside the red zone with 3 minutes left. Two incompletions, a sack and a run for no gain sealed the result.

The Lightning defense also forced several crucial turnovers — Montrae Williams recovered a fumble at their own 35 in the first quarter and intercepted Reservoir quarterback Malcolm Brown at the Gators’ 25 in the second, and Littlejohn recovered a fumble near midfield in the third — that contributed to the shutout.

“Two big plays and then kind of a stalemate both ways,” said Gators coach Bryan Cole. “They had some opportunities; we had some opportunities. And, you know, those two plays made a big difference. Put two fumbles on the ground and in a tight game like this, plus being down 13 points, made it pretty tough.”

Long Reach 13, Reservoir 0

Box score:

LR – 7 6 0 0 – 13

Re – 0 0 0 0 – 0

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First quarter

LR: Jose Ribalta 84-yard pass to Tyler Kimball, Rashaud Littlejohn kick [7-0]

Second quarter

LR: Ribalta 40-yard pass to Littlejohn, Littejohn kick failed [13-0]

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