A Journey Through a Battle of Knights and Lions (Longform)

 

Robert O'Loughlin takes a knee during an injury in the Knights game against FZE (Chase Meyer)

Robert O’Loughlin takes a knee during an injury in the Knights game against FZE (Chase Meyer)

It is often said that football is a game of numbers.

409 yards; two turnovers.

28 points; 17 penalties.

One loss.

These are all numbers recorded by the Francis Howell North Knights football team against the Fort Zumwalt East Lions on Friday, Aug. 26.

“You’ve got to pride yourself in being the hardest working team,” head coach Brett Bevill said, “and if you don’t win, then you were not the hardest working team that week.”

Despite the team “not practicing well,” as Bevill later remarked, the Knights came within four points of having their first 2-0 start to a season since 2005.

The game was also the first time for first-year head coach Bevill to make an appearance at FZE, for whom he had been an assistant coach for the past nine years.

“To be honest, it wasn’t that much different than any other game,” Bevill said. “I coached here for a long time, so it was important, but like I was telling the players, I couldn’t care less about what I’m about. I care more about what they’re about and giving them something to be proud of.”

Bevill’s homecoming was met with an overwhelmingly positive response. Nearly everyone from the students to the teachers to the PA announcer expressed their respect for the former coach, though each one wanted to make equally sure that Bevill’s new team would be defeated.

It was an ominous sign of things to come.

The game began with two different FZE defenders going down with injuries within the first six plays, and it took until well past the midway point of the first quarter for either team to score. The Knights struck first with a 8-yard screen pass from sophomore Aidan McDaniel to Donnell Hawkins. Hawkins would not reach paydirt again in the contest, though he would burn the Lions’ defense for 141 bruising yards, and McDaniel would finish the night completing 15 of 26 passes for 208 yards, two touchdowns and one interception (stats via STLhighschoolSPORTS).

“As of right now, [McDaniel] is our guy,” Bevill said. “Connor [Gallagher] is a huge role player for us- he played dang near the entire game at safety and at slot receiver. He’s really working into his role.”

McDaniel and Gallagher were locked in a neck-and-neck battle for the starting quarterback position at the start of training camp, and the sophomore has appeared to have beaten out the incumbent junior for the job (read about the quarterback battle here).

A good quarterback can only take you so far, though, as kicker James Wersching missed the extra point. The Lions responded by blazing down the field and scored four plays later on a 34-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Ben Watson to receiver Trey Payne.

The Knights defense lines up in a 3-4 package against the Lions (Chase Meyer)

The Knights defense lines up in a 3-4 package against the Lions (Chase Meyer)

“On the scouting report, it said to ‘Stop No. 2 [Watson]’ about three times,” Bevill said of his former quarterback. “He’s a big part of their team. Give some credit to the supporting cast; the receivers got open, the linemen blocked. But he is a very dynamic player and is very very tough to stop.”

Following a made extra point, the score was 7-6 in favor of FZE. That score held true through the end of the next FHN drive and the end of the first quarter.

The second quarter got off to a similarly slow start as the Knights remained bogged down in penalties, of which they accrued 17 over the course of the game, giving the Lions 190 free yards.

“We’ve just got to get our guys more sound in their fundamentals,” quarterbacks coach and assistant offensive coordinator Sam Davis said. “This week we’re really going to go back to the basics.”

With five minutes and 11 seconds remaining in the first half, it was Watson who struck again for FZE, prancing seven yards on a quarterback keeper to give the Lions a 13-6 advantage after a missed extra point.

FHN then stole a trick from the Lions’ book, scoring in just two plays after the FZE touchdown on a 32-yard back-shoulder fade from McDaniel to Maurice Massey, the two connecting just as the sophomore wide receiver crossed the goalline. Massey would finish the game as the Knights’ leading receiver with 85 yards and two touchdowns on six catches (STLhighschoolSPORTS).

Wersching missed the extra point.

The Knights looked as if they would trail 13-12 at halftime after an incredible throw by their sophomore quarterback.

Then the other sophomore quarterback took the field.

Watson matched McDaniel with a 32-yard pass to his receiver Cody Lampe with just 33.6 seconds on the clock. Watson went on to finish the game 17-26 passing with 371 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions (STLhighschoolSPORTS).

FHN went into halftime down 12-20.

“We’re flat.”

“Run over people.”

“We beat them last year.”

“We’ve got to get a stop.”

“They’re soft.”

“They didn’t get better, we did.”

“Put it in the freaking end zone.”

“Do. Not. Quit.”

These are just some of the phrases used by the Knights coaching staff in an attempt to motivate their team before the second half.

At the same time, sophomore Ronald Woods was battling a severe headache suffered on the last play of the first half. Injuries are not an uncommon theme at FZE. Last season, Ronald’s twin brother Taron suffered a concussion on the same field, according to the coaching staff. This is all said without mentioning that there were nine total stoppages in play for injured players on the field in this year’s meeting between FHN and FZE.

FHN coach Arty Johnson yells to his team from the sideline (Chase Meyer)

FHN coach Arty Johnson yells to his team from the sideline (Chase Meyer)

And be it the repeated injuries to their own or the halftime pep talks, FHN came out firing on all cylinders to start the second half.

“We’ve got to get a stop.”

The Knights began the second half on defense, but all of eight plays had passed before Connor Gallagher made a leaping interception at his team’s own 29 yard line to give his offense the ball.

“Run over people… Put it in the freaking end zone.”

The Knights fed off of Gallagher’s interception to the tune of 14- and 19-yard runs by Donnell Hawkins to begin their first drive of the second half. Six plays later and on a third down with four yards to go, Aidan McDaniel burst through his offensive line for a 13-yard touchdown run. The two-point conversion attempt was a successful jump ball to the 6’3” Maurice Massey, tying the Knights with the Lions at 20 apiece with 6:18 left in the third quarter.

“Our main goal is always to get our athletes in space and figure out how we can get them more space to move and more space to operate,” Bevill said.

The FZE Lions would not go down without a fight, though, as Ben Watson took the field once more for 11 yards on three carries and a deep crossing route with great speed from Trey Payne that went for a 70-yard touchdown and gave them the lead at 26-20 after the two-point conversion pass fell incomplete.

“Do. Not. Quit.”

FHN came back onto the field with 4:49 to play in the third quarter. The Knights, though, used less than two minutes off of the game clock to get to the opposing nine yard line, an area where size matters the most. And McDaniel picked his only target with legitimate size to catch another jump ball in the end zone. It was Massey’s second touchdown grab of the day.

Sophomore Maurice Massey outjumps Jenard Nunley of FZE for a touchdown (Chase Meyer)

Sophomore Maurice Massey outjumps Jenard Nunley of FZE for a touchdown (Chase Meyer)

The Knights chose once again to forego sending out their kicker who had already missed two extra points, leaving McDaniel to keep the ball for himself and run off tackle to the left to convert for the two points.

Heading into the fourth quarter, the Knights led 28-26.

It looked like they would pull off the comeback.

And against their head coach’s old team, nonetheless.

“Do. Not. Quit.”

On the first FZE drive of the fourth quarter, FHN forced a turnover-on-downs on an incomplete pass by Watson. This coming on a drive in which senior Sam Neely recorded his lone sack of the game and in which sophomore Drew Scheer threw down Watson for his third sack of the ballgame.

Knights still lead 28-26.

“Do. Not. Quit.”

The Knights began the drive on their own eight yard line, but an 11-yard carry by Hawkins gave the offense a little breathing room. A holding penalty and an illegal motion call stymied McDaniel and his unit leading to a third-and-13 from their own 16 yard line. The young signal caller tried to go deep on third and long, but it was his counterpart that stopped him. Watson intercepted McDaniel’s pass at the FHN 44 yard line, giving the Lions great starting field position with time winding down.

“Get a stop. Do. Not. Quit.”

The Knights’ defense was on the field for the entirety of two plays when Gallagher picked off a deep pass from Watson for his second interception of the game. The FHN backup quarterback and starting safety finished the contest with three tackles and two interceptions (STLhighschoolSPORTS), as well as two receptions for a total of one yard, and he had just given his team new life on their six yard line.

“Do. Not. Quit.”

Two short runs by a banged-up and hobbled Hawkins and a sack on McDaniel led the Knights to put the game on the foot of Stefan Cameron, who punted from inside of his own end zone for the third time that game, placing the ball on his team’s own 45 yard line.

Robert O'Loughlin takes a knee during an injury in the Knights game against FZE (Chase Meyer)

Robert O’Loughlin takes a knee during an injury in the Knights game against FZE (Chase Meyer)

“Do. Not. Quit.”

Less than six minutes remain. Watson is in the shotgun with one running back and four wide receivers. He surveys the field for a split second and takes off up the middle through a huge hole in the A-gap. He’s off to the races, and no Knight defender can catch him in 45 yards.

Touchdown, Lions.

The home team’s fans are screaming. Dully, behind the cacophony of chants, cheers, boos, jeers, the powerful roar of a lion can be heard, the audible symbol for an FZE score.

A failed run up the middle for Watson on the two-point conversion attempt cannot silence the crowd. Their team leads 32-28 with 5:49 remaining in game time.

Knights fans don’t worry about the other bleachers. They, as well as their team, have just one thing going through their minds:

“Put it in the freaking end zone.”

Oh, and,

“Do. Not. Quit.”

After the kickoff, the Knights have the ball on their own 31 yard line. 69 yards to go until they can claim victory.

An FZE offsides penalty and a Hawkins 18-yard run place the ball at the 49 yard line.

McDaniel, without a huddle, throws a quick 9-yard dig route to Malik Johnson, but it’s called back for a holding penalty. The field general then defers to Hawkins for the next two plays, but they only net the team one yard.

Third down and eight yards to go. McDaniel looks for his most reliable target, and he connects with Massey for 11 yards down the sideline. The visiting fans hold their collective breath in anticipation for a flag to be thrown for offensive pass interference.

But the yellow fabric remains tucked in the officials’ belts.

McDaniel tries for the same luck, tossing the ball deep once again to Massey, but the penalty flags fly this time. Pass interference. On the defense.

The penalty gave the Knights a total of 49 yards, allowing them to set up shop on the opposing 18 yard line, well within conceivable field goal range had Wersching not botched his two extra points. No, the Knights trail by four, so they need a touchdown to steal a victory.

Teammates Maurice Massey and Ronald Woods celebrate after a Knights first down (Chase Meyer)

Teammates Maurice Massey and Ronald Woods celebrate after a Knights first down (Chase Meyer)

Hawkins takes the first-down carry from the 18 yard line for one yard up the middle thanks to the stifling front four of FZE. McDaniel takes the no-huddle snap on second down to find zero open receivers out of five.

He throws the ball into the turf.

The clock stops.

Less than three minutes remain.

“Do. Not. Quit.”

McDaniel gets the call to keep it himself on a crucial third-and-nine.

He runs one yard backward.

FHN calls their first timeout.

The parents are excited.

The student sections are roaring.

The press box is nearly shaking.

Aidan McDaniel looks calm as he directs his offense on a fourth down with 10 yards to go.

The Knights are lined up in the pistol, McDaniel three steps behind the center with Hawkins directly to his right. There are four wide receivers bunched to the near side of the field.

The scoreboard reads 2:35.

“Do. Not. Quit.”

McDaniel takes the snap and fires it to his right, directly into the hands of junior backup quarterback Connor Gallagher. At the same time, Hawkins is bolting down the sideline.

But the defense isn’t fooled at all.

Gallagher throws a clean pass to Hawkins on the sideline. The 5’7” power back leaps to make the grab, cementing the ball between his worn gloves. He gets one foot down inbounds, and the audience freezes. The visiting bleachers stand still for the first time all game as they wait for their star running back to stand up.

The ball has rolled a few feet away from Hawkins, but that’s not what the audience is concerned with. As he caught the ball, Hawkins took a shot to the head-and-shoulders area from the FZE defensive back.

Knights fans wait just a few eternal moments longer for Hawkins to get up and make his way down the sideline to his bench before they start yelling for a penalty on the hit their player and their hopes just took.

Again, the officials keep their flags tucked away.

Stefan Cameron (left), Dillon Lauer (right) and the rest of the Knights sideline looks on in nervous tension (Chase Meyer)

Stefan Cameron (left), Dillon Lauer (right) and the rest of the Knights sideline looks on in nervous tension (Chase Meyer)

“We had a miscue on the snap,” Bevill said. “I was on the sideline trying to call a timeout, and I couldn’t get it off. That last play was kind of busted; it wasn’t designed to be that way.”

Regardless of the design, the Lions took over at their own 18 yard line and ran out the final two minutes and 28 seconds of the game clock to secure a 28-32 victory.

“We had a big turnover,” Bevill said of the comeback’s turning point. “Then they stopped us a few times, that was a big deal.”

The first-year head coach does not want to pawn off the blame for the loss against his old team, though.

“I never look at somebody else and ask what they could’ve done,” Bevill said. “I always look at myself and ask what I could’ve done more. I’ll try to figure that out for next week because obviously, it wasn’t enough. If we don’t win, something wasn’t enough.”

Or maybe something was too much. The 17 penalties, for example, could be a sign of an immature team or of growing pains.

“We’re a young team, so we’re growing,” Davis said. “Playing in big games and big moments, win or lose, is going to teach you how to win.”

The Knights can only hope that this hard-fought game and the one tick in the loss column can provide them with the spark that they’ll need for their next game on Sep. 2 against the FZS Bulldogs. The coaching staff, as well, seems to have a bit of preparation to do for the game.

“I haven’t even looked at them [FZS],” Bevill said. “I know a little bit about their players; I know their quarterback’s a stud. Besides that, I haven’t seen them in a whole year. Obviously, we’ve got to work harder and try to get that W next week. One game at a time.”

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