Amidst the howling wind Saturday afternoon, one could detect roaring lions in Sussex County. They didn’t escape a traveling circus but were running loose at Sussex Central High School. The Fenwick Lions Junior Diamond League football team shut out and shut down the Norfolk Chiefs 14-0, for their third consecutive win to put them in a first-round playoff game with the two-time defending league champion Elkton County Saints on Saturday, March 4.
The Chiefs tamed the Lions 18-0 in week 1 due to a good outside running game, but head coach John Stevenson’s team has rallied around some tough play from running back/defensive end Josh Long since he joined the team in week three against the Saints.
“Josh has made a big difference. Defensively he anchors one side of the line and keeps anybody from getting outside which allows a couple other guys to make plays on the inside. I don’t want to say he’s the toughest player, but he’s the truest football player,” Stevenson said.
“He loves to hit and when the other guys see him make big hits on the other team it lifts them up,” explained Stevenson. “That’s what happened against the Saints (week 3) and they upped their level (of play).”
The Saints scored three touchdowns in the first half — two of which came off turnovers, but the Lions buckled down and held them to 10 in the third quarter and no points in the fourth. From that point forward, the Lions realized that if they could shut out a team for one quarter then they could do it for four and play with anybody.
A new beast was bred after that game and it’s been feasting on league competition since.
The Lions stuffed the Chiefs’ opening drive of Saturday’s game, forcing a three-and-out punt from which the Lions countered with an impressive 12-play drive. They didn’t score but it put the Chiefs with their backs against the wall deep in their own territory and would give the Lions the confidence to win a tough game against a good opponent.
“If a team can drive down the field on the opening drive then it lets you know that you can play with them,” Stevenson said. “That can lead to intimidation, and each team is trying to intimidate each other. Moving the ball has given our offense the edge the past three weeks.
Neither team would score in the first quarter, but it wouldn’t take long in the second to break the silence.
The Chiefs nearly thwarted the Lions’ scoring opportunity and dropped a sure interception on second down. Third down was unsuccessful and Stevenson’s uneasiness about field position and his player’s persistence kept him from kicking the field goal in favor of going for the touchdown.
“I was thinking about kicking the field goal, but since we play high school rules the Chiefs would’ve received the ball from the point we kicked from, but the kids didn’t want to (kick the field goal),” said Stevenson. “It’s fourth-and-eight, so I asked them what they wanted to do.”
Stevenson made a beautiful call for a reverse from Long to flanker/safety Paul Reed, who trotted into the end zone untouched for the score. Reed also intercepted a pass for one of two Lions turnovers.
The Lions gained 130 yards rushing on the legs of Long, Kyle Norwood and Jordan Malone. Long smashed ahead for the tough yards against the Chiefs’ front eight and Malone scored the Lions’ other touchdown, but it was Norwood’s patient running on their counter-traps that allowed their drives to continue.
“Kyle’s doing a good job of following his blockers and cutting back against the grain,” Stevenson said. “Normally, running backs try to run out (to the edges) but Kyle runs with good vision.”
Stevenson mentioned his team won’t break an 80-yard run most often but can win with persistence in the running game.
“Some teams may have more speed than us but we’re realizing that if we put our head down and get three to three and half yards a carry — we’ll get a first down,” he said.
Stevenson’s pound-the-ball game plan begins with the heart and soul of any team — his offensive line. In their 32-20 win over the Wicomico Dragons last week, Stevenson ran almost exclusively behind left tackle Richard Wilson and left guard Abe Van Curen because they were so effective.
“We ran almost 95 percent of our running plays behind our left side,” said Stevenson. “They couldn’t stop us.”
The Lions returned their entire offensive line from last year — most of which are ninth-graders.
Heading into their playoff game with the Saints, the Lions have a better record over the past three games (3-0 vs. 2-1). The Saints lost to the Chiefs 8-6 in week five.
Also the Lions have held similar point differential over the past three games. The Saints have scored four more points (70-66) and have allowed six fewer points (20-26) heading down the second half stretch.
Kickoff starts at 1 p.m. at the Elkton Boy’s and Girl’s Club.