STRAFFORD — Heading into Week 4, the Strafford Indians were 1-2 and looking for a homecoming win.
The Clever Blue Jays? Well, they were just looking for some football.
They got it in a 34-7 loss, but it wasn’t as brutal of a game as one might think. In fact, for their second varsity football game ever, some might say the Blue Jays did pretty well.
WEEK 4 HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL
School history was made on Friday night.
Clever hasn’t had a varsity football team in 92 years. In its first season as a Friday-night football team, two of the first three games were canceled due to coronavirus exposure within the team.
The team played Willow Springs in Week 1, losing 42-0 and marking that as the first game for the Blue Jays. On Friday, senior Jake Twigg scored a 14-yard rushing touchdown for the first score as a varsity team.
“I didn’t think about it too much then, but it was nice,” Twigg said.
The one missing
In a time of unknowns, the moment was one celebrated by the fans and the sideline players. One important person was missing, though: head coach Jeff Stone.
Stone, who is still in quarantine, missed the moment he and his staff have been working for over the last several years. Willie Howard, the athletic director and assistant coach, filled in as the acting head coach. It was a bittersweet moment for Howard.
“I think he’s been the right guy for this spot because he keeps kids wanting to play football,” Howard said. “Even when the success hasn’t been there, the kids are still there, and they want to play hard for him.”
But when it came to the game, Howard knew he had to shake the dust off and remember how to keep the flow of the game going while still offering play calls.
“I’m used to Stone’s sequencing just as much as I am his, but it’s just a different ballgame. He just calls it a little different,” Twigg said.
Strafford dominated the first quarter, especially early, and took whatever wind was in the sails of the struggling Clever Blue Jays. A 74-yard running touchdown from Strafford quarterback Vance Mullins less than three minutes in silenced the Blue Jay sideline.
It stayed quiet through another TD from Mullins three minutes later, but a spark from the defense at the end of the first quarter kept the Blue Jays fighting for a chance to score. The closest the Blue Jays got to the end zone was the 30, though, and gave it up on downs.
The energy on the sideline changed and big plays from (20) and (10) on defense helped fuel what looked like a scoring opportunity from the Blue Jays. Twigg snagged an interception at his own 30-yard line with 9:32 to go in the second quarter.
The energy remained high until the very end of the first half when Strafford’s Mason Denning scored a touchdown with 23 seconds to go, and the Indians converted for two points. The teams headed into the locker rooms with Strafford leading 20-0 and the Blue Jays finally finding a rhythm.
More importantly, Twigg was in a rhythm.
Twigg had offered a spark with an interception on defense, but his time on offense is what really made a difference for the Blue Jays. In the third quarter, Twigg was the star of the Clever drive, running for almost every first down up to the 14-yard line — the closest the Blue Jays had been to the end zone. He powered through several defenders and reached in for the first touchdown in school history.
The Indians looked sluggish through most of the third quarter and woke up to the sound of cheers coming from the Clever stands. On their returning drive, Denning snuck in another touchdown. The Indians scored one more rushing touchdown halfway through the fourth quarter.
The ‘learning curve’
It wasn’t the prettiest football game Strafford’s home field had seen, but it showed bright spots for both teams. Strafford, when it has energy, can be unstoppable.
Clever has every capability to become a good football team. The team is just on a learning curve right now, Howard said.
“They’re kind of like baby deer every day. It’s something new for them,” Howard said. “And no matter how much we prepare them, there’s no real way to prepare a kid for a Friday night until they play a Friday night. … There’s just that learning curve until they learn to come out and play, and that’s our job as coaches.”
Clever’s athletic ability has shown since the turn of the century in baseball and basketball. Twigg said this football team has the athletics and it will just take time for people to get truly comfortable with their positions.
In the meantime, the work continues as if “every game, every practice could be the last.”
“There’s five guys in basketball; obviously, in football, there’s more than that. So it’s gonna take a couple more people — and then a couple more people — to make sure everyone’s doing their job,” Twigg said.
And the preparation for 0-4 Greenfield begins.