Long Reach coach Jamie Willis entered the 2018 season with many unknowns about his football team. Who was the starting quarterback? Who would carry the rushing load after the graduation of All-County running back KaDarrian Booker? Was the senior leadership going to step up and continue the newfound success of the program?
Many of those questions were answered early in the season, as the Lightning started the season 4-1, but they resurfaced when they lost back-to-back games to drop to 4-3.
The Lightning struggled to run the ball in those defeats, as running backs Julius Saunders and Nick Phillips combined for 55 total yards in the two games. Willis challenged his team at practice the week after losing to Glenelg, and they have since responded.
The running back duo lifted Long Reach to an 18-0 win over visiting Marriotts Ridge on Friday night, as Phillips scored twice and ran for 122 yards on 14 carries and Saunders added a score and 62 yards on just seven carries.
Defending regional champion Long Reach (6-3) clinched a berth in the 3A East regional playoffs for the third straight year with the victory and a Reservoir loss to Howard. Their seeding won’t be determined until after next week’s game against the Gators.
“We emphasized [the run game] the last few weeks at practice and just trying to run the football,” Willis said. “We know we’ve got playmakers outside and they’re going to make plays, but we’ve talked about as a staff that running the ball is going to change, even when people know we’re going to run it. To see our kids respond was huge.”
Willis said he told his team after the loss to Glenelg on Oct. 12 that they would need to win the final three weeks in order to get into the playoffs. He said his young team has thrived on his coaches’ challenges all season and did so again.
“We just kept getting better every week,” Willis said. “We knew if we kept working, we knew the county wasn’t as good as it has been the last couple of years, but we were just trying to get to seven wins we would have a chance. And here we are; we’ve got a chance to get to seven wins.”
The week after the first of back-to-back losses against Howard is also when Willis decided to make a full-time change at quarterback. Eric Benesch and Jose Ribalta would no longer split time. It was time to see what Ribalta, a transfer from Florida, had to offer as the starter under center.
Like the running backs, Ribalta answered the call. The junior has 401 yard passing and seven touchdowns and one interception in two games since becoming the full-time quarterback, and he added to his totals by completing 7-of-16 passes for 120 yards in a downpour against the Mustangs.
“Jose keeps working and keeps getting better. As much as we love Eric, Jose gives us something different,” Willis said. “We decided to go with him and he responded. ... It’s fun to watch him throw the football.”
Helping Ribalta are his weapons at wide receiver. Senior Luis Gooden Jr. and sophomore Chris Martin Jr. entered the week third and first, respectively, in Howard County in terms of receiving yards with 445 and 585. They each have caught at least two passes in every game and they each have at least one game with 100 yards receiving.
Gooden Jr. led the receiving corps on Friday, catching five passes for 85 yards — all in the first half — while Martin Jr. pitched in with two receptions for 35 yards.
Phillips started the scoring with a 57-yard touchdown run to cap a three-play, 69-yard drive early in the second quarter. Saunders then pounded his way into the end zone for a 4-yard score with 1 minute, 5 seconds remaining in the first half, and Phillips sealed the victory with a 28-yard touchdown run up the middle with just over three minutes remaining.
Defensively, the Lightning earned their fourth shutout of the season and second in as many weeks. Rasheed Swen and Jalen Knight both had interceptions, and Sheriff Kamara added a sack.
Meanwhile, Marriotts Ridge (4-5) lost for the fourth time in five weeks after starting the season 3-0. It’s also the second shutout loss in three weeks.
Kameron Young returned to the lineup after an injury forced him out the two games and led the Mustangs with 123 yards on 25 carries but the rest of the offense struggled, especially in the red zone. They marched into Long Reach territory in five of their nine drives of the game and twice got into the red zone. Three other drives stalled after reaching the Lightning’s 30, 21 and 26.
“I thought they were solid on defense and we’re a little young offensively. When we play good [teams], we struggle. That was the case tonight,” Marriotts Ridge coach Marcus Lewis said. “... We’re not finishing, but even our older guys are young, inexperienced. But we’ve got to find a way. Nobody wants to hear that we’re young or have injuries. Just wasn’t good enough.”
Long Reach (6-3) — 18, Marriotts Ridge (4-5) — 0
LR — 0 12 0 6 — 18
MR — 0 0 0 0 — 0
LR: Nick Phillips 57-yard run, conversion failed [6-0]
LR: Julius Saunder 4-yard run, conversion failed [12-0]
LR: Phillips 28-yard run, conversion failed [18-0]