By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Sawyer McElhatton)
Bishop Ireton sophomore Corey Johnson played in just one varsity football game last season, but you wouldn’t know it watching his defensive performance Saturday.
In a game where the stars on both teams contributed, the relatively unknown Johnson made two crucial plays late in the Cardinals 18-15 win over crosstown rival St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes before a home crowd of nearly 1,000 people.
The first big play came as the Saints faced a third-down-and-goal situation late in the third quarter. Down 18-15, backup quarterback Darnell Clement lofted a pass into the corner of the end zone. Saints wide receiver Michon Sobers, a 6-foot-3 junior, seemed in perfect position.
But Johnson, who is about a half-foot shorter than Sobers, crouched down unnoticed in the end zone. As the ball descended, he made a big, backward-leaning leap in front of Sobers for the interception. The cornerback landed on one leg and tumbled with the ball in tow as Sobers made the tackle.
A few minutes later, the Saints threatened again, but Johnson was there to break up a potential first-down completion with time running out.
“The defensive line put on great pressure, and we have great linebackers,” Johnson said after the game. “I had the easy part of just making the play, but it was all the D-line, that’s what made it happen.”
Ireton stands at 2-1 this season after finishing 1-9 last year, including a lopsided loss to the Saints. St. Stephen’s dropped to 0-3.
Early in the third quarter, however, the Saints looked poised for another big win over Ireton. Up 8-3, St. Stephen’s forced a Cardinals fumble early in the second half.
Quarterback Ish Seisay connected with junior Isaiah Davis to reach the Ireton 5-yard line. Then, the junior faked a handoff and ran in for a second touchdown, giving the Saints a decisive 15-3 lead after the extra point.
But Cardinals senior Hudson Sullivan answered immediately, returning the kickoff all the way to the Saints 10-yard-line. While Johnson’s interception preserved the comeback, Sullivan’s run was the spark that started it.
“That really energized us, and that’s what Hudson does for us as a team,” said Cardinals head coach Tony Verducci. “He’s a three-year starter and you can count on him to make a play, and that’s exactly what he did.”
The kickoff return set up Cardinals quarterback Andrew Latrash, who faked a handoff and ran in for a touchdown, making the score 15-10.
Ireton got possession back again late in the third, scoring on a 70-yard drive that included a long pass from Latrash to wide receiver Drew Smith as well as a 24-yard touchdown run by sophomore Alex Duke. Up 16-15, the Cardinals successfully executed a two-point conversion to lead 18-15.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the field, Seisay stood alone on the sideline watching Ireton’s comeback. The Saints quarterback stretched his legs and was no doubt anxious to get back into the game.
Sure enough, he led the Saints back to the red zone within minutes. But the junior was forced to leave the game because of an injury, so Clement, a freshman, took over under center.
Clement showed lots of promise. Perhaps the most impressive offensive play of the entire game came early in the fourth quarter as the Saints looked to retake the lead.
On third down with 13 yards to go on the Cardinals 38-yard-line, Clement took the snap and dropped back into the pocket. Three offensive linemen teamed up to keep defensive end Taylor Dean away from the young quarterback.
Clement had enough time to rear back and throw a perfectly placed sideline bomb to Sobers, who leaped over his defender and came down with a spectacular catch on the Cardinals 4-yard-line.
But penalties and key defensive plays kept the Saints out of the end zone time and time again.
“We’re a very young team,” said Saints head coach Bernard Joseph after the loss. “We start one senior and a junior on defense. On offense, we have a senior and two juniors.
“So that’s how we’re playing. We’re playing like a young football team. It’s a situation where every time we make a good play, we’ll make a negative — and that’s what we have to improve on.”
For Verducci, the exciting come-from-behind victory added another exciting chapter in a long-running and fun rivalry.
“At the end of the day for a high school football team, especially for two schools so close to each other, the level of spirited competition is something both schools should be proud of,” he said.