It was a typical spring game: a split squad which in turn led to a mixed bag of results. Overall, however, Richmond Hill Coach Matt LeZotte and Caleb Easterling were pleased with the way things went in last Friday night’s intrasquad game which concluded spring practice.
When it was over and done with the Gold team held on to post a 14-13 win over the Black team which gave it a dramatic finish by scoring with 16 seconds to play when senior quarterback John Newman hit junior wide receiver Korben Johnson on a 59-yard bomb. The Black team then attempted a two-point conversion attempt only to have the Golds stop it. That set off a wild celebration and with good reason.
It was the first time the Gold players had played in a winning game since last Sept. 16 when the Wildcats, who ended the season with five straight losses, beat New Hampstead, 28-27, in overtime. Easterling, a seasoned veteran although only a rising junior, was a standout on the Gold team as he got the game’s first score on a 30-yard interception return and he also had an interception on the final play of the first half. The Blacks tied it at 7-7 when Newman and Johnson teamed up on a 15-yard touchdown following a fumble recovery and then junior Gold quarterback Kirk Scott scored what proved to be the winning score on a 57yard run.
Despite both offenses having trouble moving the ball with any consistency and unforced turnovers Easterling, an all-region cornerback and the team’s top returning rusher with 205 yards, said he saw a lot of progress in the 10 practices allowed by the GHSA.
“I feel like we’re way better than the team we were last Monday when we started,” Easterling said. “We’re way better, too, than the team we were at the end of November last year.
“We have grown as a family and team and the chemistry is remarkable,” Easterling said. “I can’t lie…we are more of a brotherhood. Everybody’s game is better now. There’s not a single person who has gotten worse this spring. Everybody’s elevated their game.”
The Wildcats have some huge holes to fill on offense as LeZotte is having to replace several key skill players led by quarterback Ty Goldrick, running back Zion Gillard and wide receiver Ravon Grant, all of whom will be playing at the next level this fall.
“We had a lot of good things happen today but also a lot of things went bad,” Easterling said. “We’re going to get back to the drawing board come summer and we’re going to fix things. Come August we’re going to be ready to go play some ball.”
The top returning receiver is senior Nick Bliss who had 18 catches for 223 yards. Junior tight end Andrew Matthews caught 15 balls for 209 yards. There’s no one else on the roster who had more than four receptions.
With a split squad—the Golds, for example, had three of the team’s starting offensive linemen and the Black two—it’s difficult to develop any cohesiveness and communication is an issue—but LeZotte said it all worked out. “When you split the kids, you are able to create some excitement, fun and competitive drive,” said LeZotte who is starting his ninth season at Richmond Hill where he has a 46-40 record. “It wasn’t a clean brand of football on either side but we were still able to look at individual performances the way we always do and assess how they do.
“Quarterback play, for example, you look at can they uplift a group that might not be as talented as the group that starts; can a linebacker make the three guys around him better. We’re looking at all these things. Nothing really changes from the assessment standpoint. I feel like it was a major success.”
The Wildcats open the season on Aug. 18 at Effingham County with the home opener the following week against defending Class 5A state champion Ware County which was 14-0 last year.
The remainder of the schedule: Sept. 1: Jenkins, 7:30 p.m.; 9: Creekside, St. Johns, Fl., 4 p.m.; 22: Coffee County, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6: at Camden County, 7:30 p.m.; 13: Valdosta, 7:30 p.m.; 27: Lowndes County, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 3: at Colquitt County, 7:30 p.m.