Story and Photos by Matthew Yoder
Two themes emerged from Arcadia’s 35-14 loss to Stephen Decatur Saturday in Berlin, Md. The Firebirds, their coaches, and spectators all described a first half marked by timid play in all facets of the game. But the sport of football allows for adjustments and redemption, and the Firebirds used the break at halftime to rally as a team and mount an impressive second half comeback against a larger, deeper team.
This was the opening game for Stephen Decatur, which also unveiled a new turf field. They established the run early with big gains by Devin Waters running into the teeth of Arcadia’s defensive line. Some strong tackling by Ryan Rose and Tiair Bibbins halted their first drive, but a three and out by the Firebirds offense put their defense right back to work and the Seahawks wasted little time moving the ball downfield. A great open field tackle by Bibbins on Waters saved a long touchdown, but sweeps by Zimere Handy, Teron Wright, and a quarterback keeper from Ashton Snelsire put the Seahawks within the five-yard line. On the ensuing play Waters took the direct snap and followed good blocking to the right side for the first score of the game.
Arcadia’s second possession was met with a strong pass rush by Decatur. Costly penalties and a botched punt quickly left the Seahawks with possession of the ball again, and they only needed three plays to find the end zone for a second time. A 14-yard run by Austin Airey gave the Seahawks a 14-0 lead at the end of the first quarter. Arcadia’s defense found themselves on the field a majority of the first half, fighting a running offense that was often schematically one-dimensional but nonetheless physically relentless.
“Our line is learning a lot,” said Arcadia’s assistant coach Dan Macca. “The defense has played their hearts out, they’ve been on the field a lot.” Decatur got big runs by Branden Manuel and Zimere Handy, but on this day simply running the ball up the middle with Waters behind center Zach Hickman was routinely effective.
Scores by Snelsire on the ground and a jump ball completion in the end zone to Koby Higgins drove the score to 28-0. In the first half Arcadia’s offense was repeatedly hampered by penalties and a breakdown in blocking.
Quarterback Lethon Williams seemingly scrambled all half against a pass rush defended by physically difficult matchups from DeCameron McAfee and 6-feet, 10-inch, 350-pound Gabe Aluma. Ultimately, however, Williams praised another Seahawk defender, sophomore Austin Airey, as presenting the biggest challenge.
“Number six contained really well,” Williams said.
Arcadia coach Alan Hall admitted that Airey came out of nowhere and they didn’t scout him out against other formidable defenders.
Echoing Williams’ sentiment, Airey said, “I think I contained pretty good, trying to keep the quarterback to the inside instead of outside.”
Airey recorded one sack in the first half playing his first-ever varsity game.
Coach Hall walked with his team into halftime sporting a stunned look saying, “This is totally different than last week, let me get my composure and make adjustments.” Hall’s kids didn’t let dejection take over. Tiair Bibbins in particular could be overheard saying “put pads on them.”
“The team just needs focus,” Bibbins said.
In the stands his father, Calvin, also remained optimistic. “They came in a little flat, there’s still plenty of time, still time for hope and they need to know that,” Bibbins said.
Arcadia’s fans remained quite invested in the game and Regina Finney said, “If they can just score that will shake Decatur.”
Out of the break Arcadia did not look like a team that believed the game was over.
Ryan Rose, who left the game in the second quarter with a suspected concussion, said of the second half, “it’s a fight to show them what we have.”
The fight of the Firebirds in the second half was encouraging. The defense returned to its strong gang tackling of a week ago, with stops by Keith Grinnage and Brandon Bibbins. The game took a decidedly more intense feel altogether.
On offense Arcadia started to move the ball behind strong runs from Williams and Brandon Bibbins. They moved the ball into Seahawk territory but an interception towards the end zone halted the drive. On the ensuing drive Snelsire connected on a 73-yard touchdown pass to Higgins, pushing the score to 35-0.
Williams, who tirelessly eluded rushers all afternoon, felt the interception slowed his team’s momentum.
“I under threw it in the wind,” Williams said.
Even so the Firebirds and Williams didn’t quit. On their next possession Williams connected on a pass to Airey Finney and Finney ran 77 yards for a score.
Great tackling by Demonta Copes gave the ball back to Arcadia and they drove the ball effectively again with another touchdown pass for 15 yards from Williams to Tevon Bunting. Arcadia rode the excitement of the crowd to a successful onside kick recovery by Collin Marshall but had their drive slowed by a fumble, thus ending the game.
The coaching staff was still pleased with the second half effort and was quick to praise their kids.
“We won the second half,” Macca said. He credited his players intuition. “We made changes based on what kids told us,” Macca said. “We give them credit.”
Brandon Bibbins, who played particularly physical on both sides of the ball, said of the second half, “We came out hitting them.”
Coach Hall was quick to take blame for not making adjustments sooner, saying, “I’ll take this one on my shoulder.”
By the evening he was likely back to work scouting this week’s game with Nandua.
“Next week we find out if these kids have bounce back,” said Hall.
The sting of the loss and a home matchup with Nandua this week should supply plenty of fire for the team.
“This will make us want to go harder,” said Airey Finney.