It has been a long 15 months for Pine Forest safety James “JJ” Howard, who missed his entire junior season after shoulder surgery.
Howard showed he was beyond ready for his return, and came away with two interceptions as Pine Forest’s defense did its part for the Eagles to open the season with a 33-12 win over Pensacola High.
“To be honest I was real excited, it was my first game back and I just wanted to show out — I couldn’t do it without my defense,” Howard said. “Our secondary goes to work everyday. I just try to stay humble, if I get one (interception) I get one. I just go up and try to bring the ball down.”
The scoreboard wasn’t quite indicative of the closeness of Friday’s game, as the Eagles held an eight point lead deep into the fourth quarter and entered the half leading by a slim 14-12 margin.
But a hot start – 76 yard kick return TD by Quell Lewis to open game – and a blazing finish proved to be enough for the Eagles to open the year on the right foot.
“He (Lewis) is one of our younger running backs, but he’s very fast; he’s right up there with Jacob Copeland, Ladarius Wiggins and Jaden Gardner,” Pine Forest coach Jerry Pollard said.
There was plenty of injury adversity for both teams, but Pine Forest lost the heart of its offense in the second quarter when Xavier Saulsberry suffered a high-ankle sprain.
Copeland, Wiggins and Javier Smith all took reps as quarterback for the Eagles, while Jaden Gardner posted several monster runs and scored twice.
Then, Pensacola High saw its defensive leader go down with a shoulder injury, as linebacker Robert Reeves missed the second half.
The Tigers had a variety a sophomores step up and get varsity reps on defense on the big stage.
Despite going down 14-0 to start, the Tigers battled back as Walter Granderson found the endzone on a spectacular one-on-one fade and then QB Ashton Stephens rushed in to cut the lead to 14-12.
The Tigers marched down the goal line just seconds before halftime and threatened to take the lead, but Pine Forest stepped up on fourth and goal to stay up.
“Were happy to get it done, big thing that helped us was defense stepping up in second half and shut ’em (PHS) out,” Pollard said. “That took pressure off us with out a QB and put the pressure on PHS.”