Freshman Julius Saunders talks after the Lightning’s 26-20 season-opening win over Atholton on Sept. 1, 2018 (Kyle Stackpole / BSMG)
HOWARD COUNTY, MD — Long Reach football coach Jamie Willis believes in his newcomers, so much so that he expects to compete for a second-ever regional title despite losing 28 seniors from last year’s 3A East championship squad.
And on Saturday night, this young Lightning team flashed it potential. Junior quarterback Eric Benesch controlled the offense and limited mistakes, freshman running back Julius Saunders shouldered the rushing load and the defense limited Atholton enough to hold on for a 26-20 season-opening victory.
“We always preach that we have to be able to run the ball, and we were able to run the ball a little better in the second half than we were last night,” coach Jamie Willis said. “I think our kids grew up a little bit. I think they understand now what it takes to play varsity football.”
Making his first-career varsity start, Benesch finished 11-for-17 for 170 yards and a touchdown but he did not have to win the game with his arm. That’s because of the success of Saunders, who rushed 11 times for 49 yards and two touchdowns in the second half alone. It was his go-ahead 4-yard touchdown with about seven minutes to play in regulation that proved to be the difference.
“I saw the linebackers coming in hard, and my running back coach always gets on me, telling me to cut back whenever I see the [linebackers] coming hard,” Saunders said. “And our wing back did some good blocking, too, today. He made it easy.”
In the first half on Friday night, the teams battled back and fourth until inclement weather forced the game to be suspended with the score knotted at 13.
Neither team got off to a fast start, going three and out in their first offensive possessions, but the game’s first big play sparked the Lightning. Benesch got in a rhythm early by completing three passes on the Lightning’s first possession before a 30-yard strike to Jason Smith set up first-and-goal on the first play of their second dive. A 3-yard touchdown run by Nick Phillips two plays later gave Long Reach an early 7-0 lead.
Atholton answered two possessions later with a seven-play, 73-yard scoring drive at the start the second quarter. Senior running back Melvin Brown broke free for a 34-yard gain and then a 15-yard run two plays later, and Tony Bermudez finished the drive with a 6-yard touchdown catch from Billingsley in the corner of the end zone to tie the game at seven.
A potential 70-yard punt return touchdown by Raiders wide receiver Jonathan Watkins was erased due to a penalty midway through the second quarter, but their special teams came through soon after. With Long Reach going three and out in its own territory for the second straight possession, senior linebacker Cole Jefferson blocked the punt on fourth down, and Atholton took advantage of the short field. Wide receiver Chris Bookter caught a 19-yard touchdown pass in the left corner of the end zone on the next play to give the Raiders a 13-7 advantage after a botched extra-point attempt.
Billingsley, who finished the first half 6-for-8 with 38 yards and two touchdown passes, forced a pass over the middle and was intercepted by Chris Martin Jr. late in the second quarter. Martin Jr., however, wasn’t done making plays. With just 20 seconds left in the half and the Lightning starting at their own 37-yard line, he caught a pass from Benesch on the right sideline and outran the Atholton defense for a 63-yard touchdown. A missed extra point kept the game tied at 13.
“Our kids played well. We’re still learning and growing to know each other,” Raiders coach Justin Carey said. “But if we eliminate the holdings, the personal fouls and the missed assignments, I still think we’ll be a dangerous team.”
The second half got off to a promising start for Atholton, as it drove down to the Long Reach 35-yard-line before turning the ball over on downs. In response, the Lightning put together an impressive 10-play, 65-yard drive that spanned almost six minutes and displayed the team’s offensive versatility. Using five runs and five passes, the Lightning brought the ball to the Raiders’ 10-yard line before Saunders barreled in for the go-ahead touchdown.
Atholton had little answer for Saunders, who initially showed his coaches he could compete at the varsity level during the preseason scrimmages. Even after the Raiders tied the game on a two-yard touchdown from Brown, they failed to contain Saunders. On the ensuing drive, which spanned the beginning of the fourth quarter, Saunders rushed five times before his sixth carry resulted in a 4-yard touchdown with about seven minutes to play.
Down, 26-20, junior Chris Bookter appeared to have his second touchdown of the game courtesy of an 80-yard kickoff return, but the referees called the play back because of a penalty. And after two first downs, another penalty halted any sort of momentum for a drive that ended with an incomplete pass.
The Raiders blocked their second punt of the game late in the fourth quarter, setting them up at the Long Reach 42-yard line with about three minutes to play. But that drive stalled, too. A backwards pass to Watkins resulted in a 15-yard loss, and three incompletions from Billingsley followed.