ORANGE PARK – “That was awesome.”
That was how Clay High football head coach Joshua Hoekstra summed up his Blue Devils’ 58-12 dismantling of host Orange Park on Friday, a district 5-5A …
ORANGE PARK – “That was awesome.”
That was how Clay High football head coach Joshua Hoekstra summed up his Blue Devils’ 58-12 dismantling of host Orange Park on Friday, a district 5-5A game in which Clay wide receiver Ajay Belanger had four receiving touchdowns to punctuate a near-perfect performance by the Clay offense.
The Blue Devils offense was as efficient as it was balanced. Four running backs gained at least 60 yards as the Blue Devils averaged 7.7 yards per carry in amassing 324 yards on the ground. Christian Swilley led the runners with 94 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries. It did not matter who carried the ball, as the Clay offensive line pushed the Orange Park defenders around the field all evening. Quarterback Caleb Eason was rarely hit, and never sacked, allowing the senior to complete all nine of his passes for 167 yards and five touchdowns. The Blue Devils scored touchdowns on five of six first half possessions and their first three possessions of the second half, and likely would have matched their 60-point outburst against Pedro Menendez the week before had it not been for the running clock that began late in the third quarter.
“Physically, we just were not ready for them,” said Orange Park head coach Tom MacPherson, whose Raiders start eight sophomores on defense. “They are a good football team.”
Belanger and Eason got the visitors off to a hot start. Clay’s Marchel Robinson recovered teammate Liz Fogarty’s opening kickoff at the Raiders 28 before any Raider could field it. On the next play, Eason faked a handoff to running back Aundre Carter and found Belanger wide open up the sideline for a touchdown, just ten seconds into the game.
Orange Park enjoyed some early success behind the running of tailback Keanan Restall and quarterback Terrence Johnson. Deonte Domineck burst up the middle from 12 yards out to cap a first quarter scoring drive, and the Raiders scored on a trick play early in the second quarter. Johnson tossed a backwards pass to running back Spencer Kirkham in the left flat. Kirkham took a few steps as if to run the ball, but pulled up and threw a bullet to Marquise Brown, who was behind the Clay secondary and easily completed the 64 yard play to bring the Raiders to within 21-12.
The critical sequence came after Brown’s touchdown. Jeremy Barber set the Raiders up near midfield with a fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff. But then a low shotgun snap went past Johnson, resulting in an 18 yard loss. Orange Park could not overcome the distance lost, squandering the opportunity to further narrow their deficit. After the Raiders punted, Belanger put Clay in control with his second touchdown catch, turning a quick slant into a 23 yard score. Orange Park never threatened again.
“If we score there, I do not know if it would have made a difference,” said MacPherson. “They [Clay] were going to score 50 points.”
Belanger finished the night with six receptions for 120 yards. His scoring plays, three of which were on quick slant patterns, covered 28, 23, 26 and 4 yards.
“Ajay and Caleb really have good chemistry,” said Clay head coach Josh Hoekstra. “They [Orange Park] were going to load the box like a lot of teams do against us, so we had some one-on-one matchups.”
And no one on Orange Park’s roster could cover Belanger alone.
Carter and Cedrick Brown had rushing touchdowns for Clay, now 4-2 overall and 2-0 in District 5-5A. Tight end Denaud Valmyr scored from seven yards out on his lone reception of the night.
The Clay defense, led by Kenneth Johnson’s two sacks, held the Raiders to just eight total yards, no first downs and no points in the second half. Defensive back Turner Erstad closed out the scoring by tackling Restall for a safety.
With Orange Park, the second of five consecutive District 5-5A opponents, the Blue Devils are peaking at just the right time.
“We are a completely different team now than we were in week one [a 27-6 loss to Fleming Island],” said Hoekstra. “We are executing now.”
Clay’s toughest district tests come in the next two weeks, at Ridgeview October 14 and at home against defending district champion Baker County October 21. Hoekstra considers this week’s contest a playoff game.
“Ridgeview has a great offense, a great defense and great special teams, and they are very well coached,” said Hoekstra. “It is going to be a humongous challenge for us.”
Outside linebacker Carson Jackson excelled on defense for Orange Park, notching four tackles for loss. The Raiders, now 1-5 overall and 0-2 in the district, host Baker County on October 14.
“They are another team that will run the ball right at you,” said MacPherson. “They will have 300 pound linemen— and they do have a few 300 pounders— going against our 150-pound Mike [middle linebacker] and Will [weakside linebacker].”