Nease overcame the loss of its starting quarterback and had to revise its game plan on the fly in its decisive 47-16 win against Orange Park last Friday.
The day before the game, the Panthers found out Preston Staples would not be able to play because of an injury that will likely keep the junior quarterback out for several weeks. The loss of Staples didn’t seem to slow Nease’s offense, which focused on its run game and benefitted from its nearly flawless defense.
Senior Ashton Wood took over the quarterback duties, and he and standout running back Jareem Westcott ran over the Raiders’ defense, combining for 268 of Nease’s 349 rushing yards.
“Ashton and Jareem have played a lot of football for us the last couple of years, and for them to be able to step in and execute something that was kind of different than what we’ve done and play really hard, was really fun,” Nease coach Tim Krause said.
Wood started out slowly, throwing an interception in the end zone midway through the first quarter. But the Panthers quickly got the ball back when Trey Ragin intercepted a pass by Orange Park’s Vinny Walker. Westcott then began his attack, scoring on a 26-yard run. After a blocked extra point attempt, the Raiders’ offense continued to struggle, and Westcott and Wood continued to overwhelm the Orange Park defense.
Wood scored on a 26-yard run late in the first quarter to put Nease up 12-0, before a missed extra point attempt.
Nease got good field position early in the second quarter thanks to a blocked punt, and the Panthers took full advantage. Starting at the Raiders’ 39-yard line, Westcott put Nease at first-and-goal, and Wood finished the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Zach Sheffer.
Walker put Orange Park on the board in the second quarter with a short TD run that made the score 19-7, but Westcott and Wood continued their dominance. The Panthers drove down the field with big runs by both players, and Wood closed out the scoring drive with a 12-yard pass to Nic Bunkosky, who had impressive performances on both sides of the ball.
Holding onto a 26-7 lead after halftime, Westcott overcame an early fumble that was recovered by Sheffer. After the defense stopped the Raiders on fourth down to take over, Westcott scored again on a 6-yard run, giving Nease a 33-7 lead.
Krause was pleased with how his team adapted to the change of game plan on such short notice.
“That’s a completely different offense really than we usually run; it uses blocking schemes and some things we do in our regular offense, but it’s pretty much a key change from, at least in the beginning of the year, what I thought our identity would look like,” Krause said. “I’m just really happy for the kids for executing it, and stepping up to the challenge of doing something new.”
Midway through the third quarter, it looked as if Orange Park was about to turn the tide. The Raiders recovered a Wood fumble at Nease’s 22-yard line, and Walker marched Orange Park to first-and-goal territory. But Walker fumbled the snap, which was recovered by Bunkosky and returned 92 yards for a touchdown.
Krause said it’s been a benefit to have players like Bunkosky, who can contribute offensively and defensively.
“It’s a challenge to work through, but our kids have done such a great job with it,” he said. “The kids who do play both ways work really hard in conditioning and how they work drill-wise and how they practice. It’s been great for us to get guys involved on both sides of the ball.”
The Raiders scored in the fourth quarter on a 5-yard run by Terrance Johnson and converted a two-point conversion, but Nease answered with 48-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Joe Bradshaw for the final points of the game.
Without Staples, Nease will likely continue to use its stellar run game in Thursday's matchup at 7 p.m. at home against Bishop Kenny.
Although the game plan will have to change based on Staples’ absence, the Panthers will have more time to prepare for Bishop Kenny than they did for the Raiders, which may be bad news for the Crusaders.
“We kind of put this game plan together in a matter of hours, really,” Krause said. “There are things that we had and elements that we had, and now we just have to adapt and change.”
But he also thinks change can be good, and something the coaches embrace.
“I think it will be a fun challenge,” Krause said. “It always wakes you up a little bit to get out of your comfort zone and learn, and try to do something different.”