JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Episcopal players went through the handshake line all business Friday night, congratulating their opponent on a tough game.
Anyone watching would have a difficult time telling if the Eagles had earned a victory. That is, until the players turned to meet in the postgame huddle. Then they saw their soaked fellow students waiting there.
Then the celebration broke out in earnest. A lot of hugs, screaming and yelling. Mardi Gras beads thrown in the air. Coach Mark Brunell hugging anyone remotely associated with the team.
That’s the joy of a team claiming its first playoff victory in school history. Freshman Ershod Jasey rushed for 163 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while junior captain Nick Elksnis had two touchdown catches on offense and iced the game with a score on defense, as host Episcopal downed Baldwin 35-25 in the Region 1-3A quarterfinal.
“I’m still kind of in shock,” said Elksnis, who had six catches for 95 yards, including scoring catches in traffic of 20 and 21 yards. ”I was hoping the whole time we would win the game. There’s a lot of ‘What ifs’ when it comes to things like this, so when I turned the corner after saying, ‘Good job’ to those cheerleaders, I was – woo! – full of joy. Full of joy.”
It was an interesting road back for the Eagles (10-1), the third seed in the region. They had fallen to the sixth-seeded Indians (7-4) for their only loss at the midpoint of the season.
But this was a changed team, Brunell said.
“I think, Week 5, we were just trying to figure out ourselves,” said Brunell, whose team will travel to Tallahassee to face second-seed Florida high in the next round of the playoffs. “We’ve really gotten into a good rhythm these last five weeks. We talked before the game, and we said if we kept fighting, things could possibly go our way, and they did.”
This was miles from the 35-7 beating Baldwin administered in September. The Episcopal defense forced five turnovers, with interceptions by Jasey, Jack Bogan and Kaiman Clark, who had two picks.
Elksnis had 1.5 of his team’s three sacks and, with the Indians on their own 16, trailing 28-25 with a minute left, he sealed the game. Baldwin quarterback Bryce Tompkins came under pressure from Chris Gardner and Elijah Franklin. He was sacked, and the ball shook free.
Elksnis scooped it up and raced in from 10 yards out.
Ballgame. First playoff victory.
“Relief. It was like a weight lifted off my shoulders,” said Elksnis, who will head to Penn State to play tight end. “I was like, ‘We did it.’ We fought like hell, and we did it.”
Jasey and Elksnis powered the offense. The freshman raced for scores of 49 and 18 yards. It was made all the more difficult because of the effort from the Indians defense.
Three of Baldwin’s four touchdowns were set up or came from special teams or defensive plays. Gregory Washington, who had two sacks and three tackles for loss, forced a fumble on a jet sweep that his team recovered. Six plays later, Baldwin held a 6-0 lead.
After Elksnis’ first touchdown catch gave his team its first lead, Indians punt returner Christian Sanderson raced 81 yards for a score to help Baldwin regain the lead. While the game seesawed after Jasey’s 49-yard run, the Indians weren’t done.
Tyson McClendon’s strip sack gave his team the ball at its own 47-yard line in the closing two minutes of the first half. It took four plays before Tompkins connected with Xavier McGriff for a score and a 19-14 halftime lead.
But Baldwin’s first three possessions of the second half were a pair of three-and-outs and a turnover on downs. At the same time, the Eagles’ first drive of the second half ended with Elksnis’ second contested catch in the end zone.
The Indians struck for one more big play, with Tayveon Sutton hauling in a 61-yard pass for his second touchdown, but the team never recovered the lead again.
That ended the season for Baldwin. But McGriff feels, even though the Indians came up short in trying to take their first playoff victory, there are brighter days ahead.
“It gave our guys an opportunity to see the playoffs as underclassmen,” said McGriff, a senior who led his team with seven catches for 86 yards. “So when they come in next year, they’ll be prepared. We’re leaving something good here.”
Something good continues for the Eagles, with another round in Tallahassee next week. After winning the first playoff game in school history, why not try for two?
“I came here knowing that it wasn’t a strong program,” Elksnis said. “I’ve watched it build up. I’ve watched kids, more and more, getting into the program and wanting to win. I couldn’t be more proud of the guys.”
Episcopal 35, Baldwin 25
Baldwin, 6, 13, 0, 6 — 25
Epsicopal, 0, 14, 7, 14 — 35
B – Tayveon Sutton 6 pass from Bryce Tompkins (kick blocked)
E – Nick Elksnis 20 pass from Tucker Tomberlin (Michael Mumford kick)
B – Christian Sanderson 81 punt return (run failed)
E – Ershod Jasey 49 run (Mumford kick)
B – Xavier McGriff 5 pass from Tompkins (Zach Norris kick)
E –Elksnis 21 pass from Tomberlin (Mumford kick)
E – Jasey 18 run (Mumford kick)
B – Sutton 61 pass from Tompkins (kick blocked)
E – Elksnis 10 fumble return (Mumford kick)
Category: B; E
First downs: 13; 17
Rushes-yards: 22-56; 35-137
Passing: 187; 179
Comp-Att-Int: 12-38-4; 13-32-0
Fumbles-lost: 1-1; 2-2
Penalties-Yards: 8-55; 10-80
RUSHING — B: Sutton 3-35; Amos Porter 11-35; Sanderson 1-(-2); Tompkins 6-(-6); Team 1-(-6). E: Jasey 25-163; Reed 3-1; Team 1-(-2); Tomberlin 6-(-25).
PASSING — B: Tompkins 12-38-4-187. E: Tomberlin 13-32-0-179.
RECEIVING — B: McGriff 7-86; Sutton 3-73; Porter 1-26; Sanderson 1-2. E: Elksnis 6-95; Jack Bogan 4-40; Langston Hardy 2-38; Will Eckles 1-6.
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