Central Regional running back Nick Leone wasn’t counting on having his role as a secondary option changing Friday night, not after his team produced touchdowns in its first two possessions.
But when an injury took out starter Javon Hardy and the passing game went absent, Leone became the go-to guy — and he delivered with an 11-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to lift the Golden Eagles to a 21-17 victory over Jackson Liberty in a Shore Conference Class B South game.
Leone rushed 10 times for 58 yards, career-high numbers for the senior. All of it came after Hardy left the game before halftime with a bruised left ankle suffered on a defensive play. Hardy had 63 rushing yards.
Leone said he relished the opportunity, albeit under the unfortunate circumstances.
“It felt great. It’s unexplainable the feeling I have,” he said. “I was focused. I was zoned in.”
The result marked the first head coaching victory for former Central assistant Will Jacobs, but it almost got away as the Golden Eagles (1-0, 1-1) frittered away the 14-0 lead they had in the first quarter.
“We coach all our kids, whether they’re starters or not, so they’re ready, because you never know what’s going to happen in high school football,” Jacobs said. “It’s hard to duplicate how (Hardy) runs, and he was doing a great job. It’s hard to get someone else to do that. But the funny thing is, the line started blocking better after we had to change. Leone is very shifty. We tried another back who got some yards but stalled out. When we put Leone in he kept getting yardage. The logical thing to do was keep giving him the ball.”
The winning touchdown was set up when a low snap caused the knee of Jackson Liberty’s punter to touch the ground, downing the ball at the Lions 22. After Leone’s touchdown, Central defensive lineman Nicholas Solomon had a sack and two quarterback hurries, and Alexander Fernandez intercepted a pass from John Veneziano to end the Lions’ last bid. Veneziano was 9 of 19 for 116 yards.
Hardy scored the game’s first touchdown on a 7-yard run and Central poured it on, recovering an onside kick and tacking on another touchdown to make it 14-0 before Jackson Liberty’s offense could get the ball.
But the host Lions (0-2, 0-1) dug in when they finally had a chance, taking the ball 72 yards on 11 plays and getting on the scoreboard on Matt Castronuova’s 5-yard run. Jackson Liberty converted a pair of third downs during the march. Veneziano — who came off the bench in the opening week as a replacement for Castronuova, who has since spent much of his time at tailback — completed 2 of 3 passes, with Castronuova on the receiving end both times.
Almodovar’s 4-yard TD run in the final minute of the third quarter gave Jackson Liberty its only lead at 17-14.
The Lions had lost 28-0 to Wall in their opening game and coach Jim Sharples said, “We improved a lot. We worked hard this week. But you know what? They saw that they got some results today. The hard work paid off but Central did a great job. They lost the lead but they fought and got it back. They deserved to win.”
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