RICHLAND — How many high school football teams have a featured running back who is 6-foot-1, 290 pounds?
Isaiah Raikes, a junior defensive tackle, has been moonlighting as St. Augustine Prep's "featured back" — in short yardage situations, mind you — this season, and on Friday night the big fella pounded his way into the end zone twice to help lead the host Hermits to a 27-14 victory over rival Holy Spirit. He also led a defensive effort that limited the Spartans to just 46 rushing yards while also forcing four turnovers.
This game featured all kinds of back stories as well. Holy Spirit assistant coaches Mark Reardon and Charlie Roman were the head coach and offensive coordinator, respectively, at St. Augustine just two seasons ago; Spirit quarterback Ryan Yost tied a school record from 1968 last week when he threw for five touchdowns in a 40-13 win over Washington Township; the Spartans beat Prep 22-17 last year on this same weekend; both teams were on four-game winning streaks; and the Hermits had proven their ability to stop pass-heavy offenses a few weeks ago when they allowed just six points to Ocean City.
"There was a lot of emotion and a lot of personal stuff. (Roman and Reardon) gave me two great years, we respected what they did for us when they were here, but we wanted to come out here and get a win against them. They beat us here last year, so we wanted to get that revenge," Hermits linebacker Joey Kolonich said.
"They came out with the run and did well against that, stopped it, so we knew they were going to try different things," Kolonich added. "They are really good at adjusting with their offensive coordinator (former St. Augustine assistant Charlie Roman). We knew they were going to hit us with both (the run and the pass) and we were able to adjust, and that was the key to the game."
"They are excellent coaches and that goes without saying, and they did an excellent job tonight," Prep coach Pete Lancetta said, referring to Reardon and Roman. "As far as our program is concerned, this win is huge for where we are at right now and what we've been through. We were without Jaylen for the second half but the young guys stepped up. This was a character win. My coaches do a great job, led by Matt Lenguadoro the defensive coordinator — I have a great staff, I really do, and I appreciate all they do."
St. Augustine Prep (5-2) jumped ahead early when quarterback Chris Allen found a wide-open Justin Shorter over the middle for a 30-yard touchdown, but Holy Spirit (4-2) responded with a drive that was capped by a 4-yard TD from Yost to tight end Isaiah Gerena. E'lijah Gray ran in the two-point conversion for an 8-7 Spartans lead, but that was the last lead Spirit would enjoy as the Hermits scored 13 unanswered points, on a Raikes 2-yard plunge with 7:22 before halftime and a pair of field goals from Luke Snyder, one with just 10 seconds remaining before halftime and the other that capped off a nearly six-minute drive to start the third quarter.
Again Spirit responded, driving 70 yards to pull to within 20-14. Mike Preston capped the drive with a tremendous play, as he took a short pass from Yost at the 10-yard line before breaking several tackles and diving into the end zone. Holy Spirit forced a punt on the Hermits' next possession and seemed to have momentum, but freshman Nasir Hill came up with an interception on the Spartans' next drive. It was one of three picks on the night for the Hermits' secondary.
"We were holding them pretty good. They were driving about three or four yards every play, then they got a couple of big plays that got them closer to the end zone. We were missing Jaylen DeCoteau and that hurt us when he went out, but we adjusted and guys stepped up and we were able to stop them," Kolonich said. "I think we just had a lot of inexperience coming into the year, but we've really been working hard at practice at all spots, and that's been a huge key to why we're winning games right now."
THE BOWLING BALL: Hill has emerged as the Hermits' featured running back, and he finished with 43 yards on 17 carries, but Raikes was the big difference maker down near the goal line. His 2-yard run in the second quarter gave Prep the lead for good, and he shut down any comeback hopes for the Spartans with a nifty 9-yard scoring run around the left side in the fourth quarter.
"If he's scoring, whatever he wants to do, I don't care. Raikes is doing great running the ball — he's great at everything right now and that's a big key for us. He was getting a little attention last year in his first year here, so I expected him to have a big year this year. He's getting a lot of offers, and it's for a reason. It shows out here on the field," Kolonich said. "He's a force (on defense). If you look at the film, he's either at the line of scrimmage or behind the line of scrimmage. He's not getting driven off the ball even by two or three guys."
"We call him 'the bowling ball.' He's a 300-pound running back, and that works for a short yardage situation. He's also a key piece for us on defense, as a junior his role is solidifying now and he's starting to hurt offenses now. That's really helping the linebackers. He's getting guys off linebackers and we have better gaps to read and the defensive ends are able to move around a little more," said senior linebacker Joe Bonczek. "This is a humongous win for us. After that loss to them last year on our home turf, this was our year, senior year, we have to defend our home. We were able to come out and focus. We're starting to solidify things on defense. I think everybody on defense is comfortable now and that's starting to show. We're having good coverage, making stops and getting turnovers."
"I always wanted to play running back but never really lost the weight, so I stepped into the defensive line position. I get in where I fit in," Raikes said. "I've been playing defensive tackle pretty much my whole life. Working out and competing against our offensive line in practice — we like to make each other better. Iron sharpens iron, as we all know. I always like to get after it and compete against anybody I'm going up against."
Lancetta said that when you have a 300-pounder who can handle the rock, it only makes sense to use him in short yardage and goal-line situations.
"He's one of our backs, that's for sure. Those were some big carries with those packages we have," he said. "He has 12 big-time Division I offers and that's not a surprise. In the offseason we'll have our lifting program after school and then he'll go home, do his homework, and then work out again on position specific stuff with some really good trainers. He has a great work ethic. He does well in school, has a great personality and he's a leader, along with all these seniors."
BACK ON TRACK: The Hermits' defense got shredded by St. Joseph in a 30-8 loss in early September, and that served as a wake-up call. Lancetta and his staff started getting on the defense to step up their game if they wanted to make the state playoffs.
"That was a wake-up call. After that game, we knew something wasn't right and we had to get things together. Being in a leadership role, you have to get the guys together and start diagnosing the problems, and you have to solve them. Talking with the guys and working with them, we're starting to understand our roles, and we're working harder," Bonczek said. "I think it's just physicality. We're starting to bond as a group now and starting to get guys in their roles now. Everybody is understanding their roles and what we're trying to do in practice. It's been practice for us, we've been practicing really hard ever since that loss to St. Joe's. State College hit us, then we got a win against Lenape, but St. Joe his us hard and we knew we had to start working harder. We're focusing for three hours now in practice, and that's been showing on the field."
"After that St. Joe game, the coaches really tightened things up. They felt our practices weren't what they should be. The key for the defense has been practice, practice, practice and just working on everything. The coaches really got on us," Raikes added. "We were planning on having a great start but then we lost those two games. But we've bounced back and gotten on a roll, and we don't plan on stopping anytime soon. I felt like I needed to step into a leadership role. I didn't think I was doing all that I could in the beginning of the season, so I stepped up, along with the rest of my teammates."
The Hermits were able to contain Gray, one of the top running backs in South Jersey, and limited the junior to just 21 yards on eight carries. The Spartans finished with 209 yards through the air, but were hurt by three interceptions and a fumble.
"They've been getting better and better. They believe in what we're doing defensively and it's showing," Lancetta said. "Our work ethic in practice has been getting better and that correlates. They're finally realizing that. We're pretty good against the run and I guess that's why they threw the ball so much — and effectively for a while. Ocean City threw the ball effective against us, too, but in the end we only gave up six points to them and 14 to Holy Spirit. We came up with turnovers, which was big, and for the most part we protected the ball. And that's a big part of it."
WHAT'S NEXT: St. Augustine will look for its fifth win in a row on Oct. 19 when it travels to Cherokee, while Holy Spirit travels to Kingsway to take on the Dragons.
Contact Dave O'Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays