Playoff hopes were dashed for the Sussex County Warhawks when the Kent County Fire squeezed by them, 9-6, on April 16.
The Warhawks had coasted past the Fire, 27-14, for their first win of the season but were unable to recapture the same success.
“The Fire wanted it more than we did. We knew what was on the line and we didn’t come to win,” said Head Coach Butch Yocum.
“We didn’t have a good week of practice and it definitely shows,” Yocum added. “We had great weeks of practice when we won, and even when we beat the Raiders we were able to get one good practice in. It’s a shame, too, because we’re 10 times better. But it just shows that you have to show up and compete.”
A strong nor’easter provided cold game-altering winds, prohibiting the Warhawks from opening up their offense. Quarterback Jason Rust completed 7 of 23 passes for 96 yards — a stark contrast to his previous 237-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Fire.
“We were out of sync and missing games, and practice doesn’t help. Jason missed the game before and it showed this game. He played much better when we won our games versus the Warriors and Fire,” said Yocum.
Rust managed the best he could, and all without two of his starting receivers. Without Andre Matthews and James Maddox, Yocum was forced to go to his third and forth receivers, but neither of them could muster enough production to move the ball.
Dedrick Jones led the team with three catches for 62 yards, while Charles Cannon also caught three passes for 31 yards.
“It’s hard when you’re missing starters in such a big game. Our backups made some plays but there is only so much that they were able to do,” said Yocum.
The passing game was manageable despite the wind howling and the running game yielded results, but Yocum opted not to run the ball.
Running back Darnell Strand gained 50 yards and
the Warhawks lone touchdown on only eight attempts. Rust and fullback Brian Walker added six yards on three carries to further help the Warhawk cause.
The scrappy Warhawk defense held the Fire in check for almost the entire game — except for two drives: a desperation heave that miraculously fell past an anticipating defender and into the hands of a waiting receiver for the touchdown with only seconds remaining before the half expired, and at the end of the third quarter when the Fire converted on a field goal.
The Warhawks’ trio of linebackers swarmed the field and swallowed almost every ball carrier possible. Captain linebacker Tremond Conway again led the team with 9.5 tackles and a blocked kick, while fellow linebacker Tomar Bivens reeled in 7.5 tackles. Linebacker Albert Haynes applied the pressure for the Warhawks as he sacked Fire quarterback Matt Lanouette twice.
Unable to put together any sort of productive running game, the Fire turned their attention to trying to win the game through the air. The Fire heaved it up early and often, despite the strong winds, and their athletic receiving corps was able to pull down several of the sailing passes.
The Warhawks had so many passes thrown their way that the game appeared to resemble a tip drill more than a football game. Warhawk defenders broke up nine Fire passes, four by cornerback Leroy Jenkins.
As the season comes to an end, the Warhawks can only hope to finish at 4-4 with a win over the Talbot County Warriors. The 1-6 Warriors narrowly defeated the Fire last week, 13-12, so the Warhawks must be prepared for another dogfight.
With the time and effort it takes to organize and operate a semi-pro team, owner Tina Dennis said she was almost certain that the Warhawks will be back next year.
“I wasn’t sure if I would run the team again next year, but the guys showed a lot of improvement and a desire to win. We’ll see how the Warriors’ game goes before anything is certain. But I think we will be better next season,” said Dennis.