St. John Neumann coach Damon Jones addresses his players after their 31-27 win at Evangelical Christian School on Friday night. PHOTO COURTESY OF ADAM KOSZO/ST. JOHN NEUMANN
It was well after 11 p.m. on Friday night. Standing in his office, Damon Jones looked and sounded as weary as the St. John Neumann football players who had just gotten off the bus that transported them to and from Fort Myers.
“Tonight was one of those that they finally got it,” Jones said in a low voice. “That if they go hard, good things will happen. If we don’t go hard, not much good’s going to happen.”
Undermanned at running back and in the defensive backfield, the Celtics (4-3) — a still fairly inexperienced bunch — drove down the field in the last couple minutes to beat a talented (and, at 2-4, perhaps underachieving) Evangelical Christian School squad, 31-27.
How thin was Neumann’s roster Friday? Four-year starting safety John Paul Raiger was out with an injury he suffered a week earlier while making a game-ending interception in the Celtics’ 20-14 home win over Lemon Bay. That left Neumann’s secondary with four players. And when running back Kevin Pierre was hurt late in the third quarter, the Celtics had to close out the game with a single backup fullback. (They were already without injured running back/defensive tackle Reggie Garcon.)
“They played their freaking tails off,” Jones said of his players — many of whom looked over to the sideline during the game in hopes of catching a breather (only to be rebuffed by Celtics coaches because they had no one else to put in). “They made plays when they had to make them.”
Mike Joyce — now in his first year as Celtics starting quarterback after succeeding Jensen Jones, last year’s Class 2A Player of the Year and Coach Jones’ older son — ran in the game-winning touchdown from a couple yards out with 37 seconds remaining. Joyce’s touchdown came less than two minutes after the Sentinels returned a kickoff 74 yards for a score to take a 27-24 lead.
“The offense did a phenomenal job,” Jones said. “Mike … phenomenal drive — our first two-minute drill. We go down in five plays, even with a penalty, and punch it in.”
Jones said Joyce played his best game of the season Friday. The junior signal-caller had two other touchdowns: an 8-yard run five seconds into the second quarter that tied the game at 7-7; and a 45-yard touchdown to Daniel DeSantis midway through the third quarter that gave Neumann its first lead of the night, 21-20.
“I told them at halftime: ‘You have to come out in the second half, get a defensive stop, get the ball back, and we’re going to have to go score,’” Jones said. “That’s exactly what they did.”
Realizing they needed to keep the Sentinels’ potent offense (led by quarterback RJ Rosales, who starred at Immokalee High before transferring to ECS this summer) off the field as much as possible, Neumann leaned on its offensive line to control the clock. Makes sense, since those guys up front are the most experienced group on an otherwise pretty green Celtics squad.
Said Jones: “I told them before the game, ‘You guys … we’re thin back here. We’re going to have to be able to keep that clock moving and pick up first downs,’ and that’s exactly what they did.”
Jones had high praise for senior Joseph Landy, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound lineman who transferred this year from Barron Collier High School. Landy’s arrival added another experienced body to an offensive line that returned all of its key cogs from last year: Andrew Saluan, Josh Costain, Anthony Votta, Grant Wojick, Noah Annicelli and Ryan O’Connor. (Jones has said that the Celtics lost somewhere around 80-90 percent of their offensive production from last year’s team, which recorded the program’s first playoff home game and victory.)
“He’s been such a good leader,” Jones said of Landy. “He’s playing both sides of the ball for us. … He’s been a huge addition.”
Though Rosales & Co. made their share of big plays, Jones said he was happy with the pass rush that Neumann’s defense generated, as it forced Evangelical Christian into a bunch of third- and fourth-down tries. Senior defensive end Jake Glasser capped the night with a sack and forced fumble.
The Celtics learned Tuesday that they hold the fifth spot in the Florida High School Athletic Association’s initial Class 2A-Region 5 playoff rankings. If they win their last three regular-season games (against opponents who own a combined 2-16 record), another home playoff game could be in the offing.
St. John Neumann will travel to Bonita Springs High School this Friday to take on a Bull Sharks team that is winless in the first six games of its inaugural season.
During the late-night interview, Jones’ younger son, Dawson, popped his head in the doorway.
The sophomore, who played in just a few of the Celtics’ games last season, had two complaints: one for Damon Jones the coach; the other for Damon Jones the dad. First, he was bothered by “an NFL” hit he took to his thigh earlier in the night; and secondly, he was hungry.
Jones barely acknowledged the first complaint before tackling the latter, assuring his son of a late-night meal. Appeased, Dawson disappeared back to the locker room. Coach Jones then offered this assessment of his son’s play: “He played a whale of a game tonight” returning punts and kickoffs while also starting at safety and wide receiver.
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