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Defensive stand with 7 seconds left leads to Blue Devils' win

"Never count out the Blue Devils" - Kennard

Randy Lefko
Sports Editor

Posted 9/14/23

ORANGE PARK - First Orange Park stopped Clay at the one-yard line, stuffing Clay quarterback Merrick Rapoza just 36 inches from the goal line, then Clay's defense held and forced an end zone back …

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Defensive stand with 7 seconds left leads to Blue Devils' win

"Never count out the Blue Devils" - Kennard


ORANGE PARK - First Orange Park stopped Clay at the one-yard line, stuffing Clay quarterback Merrick Rapoza just 36 inches from the goal line, then Clay's defense held and forced an end zone back line punt by Orange Park to set up a thrilling final two minutes of football that saw Clay kicker Ethan Bellemare calmly kick a 27-yard field goal with 22 seconds on the clock to give the Blue Devils' a 42-41 come-from-behind win over the host Orange Park High Raiders. Orange Park was unfortunately celebrating the red-ribbon opening of the new Hoyt B. Cotney Stadium.

"It's something I've dreamt about since I was a kid," said Bellemare, just a junior "kid". "My team had full confidence in me and coach Kennard told me to just go kick the ball."

The Raider punt put Clay on the field near midfield to attempt to steal the lead in the Orange Park-dominated scoring and, with quarterback Landon Chadwick at the controls, Clay moved quickly to the Raider 35 with a quick pass to Antonio Thomas with defender Orlando Jackson preventing the quick-strike score.

A second pass, to Iyen Addison, pushed Clay to the 27, with 2:31 left in the game.

At the 18 with a Clay first down, Orange Park defensive end Triston Johnson caught Chadwick on a scramble that also got an intentional grounding flag tacked on to the 12-yard loss putting Clay at the Raider 43.

"We feel the love of the Clay football community," said Geno Addison, who with brothers Iyen and Neo, transferred from Bradford County over the summer. "We want to be a part of that Clay pride and the whole family is amazing."

Clay, now with second and 30, went with Chadwick to Thomas again for 10 yards and a third and 10.

"We believe in both kids; Merrick and Landon," said Clay coach Kyle Kennard. "They have very different skill sets and we can do a lot of different things with them."

Chadwick misfired on a third pass to Thomas with Orange Park defender Timothy Barfield draping Thomas, but a facemask on Orange Park breathed life into a third and 10 for Clay at the Raider 20 with 1:12 to go.

From there, Clay got just nine yards to face a fourth and one at the 11-yard line with 52 seconds to go.

Kennard ran the clock down to 22 seconds before calling time out and sending in Bellemare for the game-winner.

"Never say die," said Kennard after the thriller. "We told the team in the lockers that we were going to win the game and do it our way."

Orange Park, in the first half, looked to dominate from the outset despite Clay scoring quickly off the opening kickoff with Chadwick hitting Thomas from 32 yards out to go up 7-0.

The Raiders, with a kick return to midfield, answering quickly behind runs from Damar Jackson, got to the Clay eight in just three plays before Joshua Johnson finished the drive with the score to tie the game 7-7 with five minutes left in the first quarter.

Clay quarterback Merrick Rapoza, with 3:15 on the clock, got sacked by Johnson to put Clay at fourth and 21 at the Raider 24. Bellamare would be short on the 39-yard field goal attempt.

"Me, Landon and Coach Flaherty talked at halftime about what we are seeing and how to move the ball," said Rapoza. "The line is all dogs and just block their butts off."

Orange Park, with first and 25 at their own 25, took over and scored quickly with Johnson blasting a screen pass to paydirt with 17 seconds left in the first quarter with Ty Obemeyer getting two shots at the PAT kick for a 14-7 lead.

After a Clay punt, Johnson bobbled a handoff and nearly gave away the ball. The Raiders kept possession, and had another long run from Johnson but also a flag to negate the play. Simple response: 65-yard scoring pass from Taylor to a wide-open Jaden Paulk.

Obemeyer's kick put the game at 21-7 at 9:57 of the half.

Dykas took the ensuing kickoff 60 yards past midfield with a facemask 15 yards added on to start Clay at the Raider 24. Two plays later, Orange Park defensive back Donovan Bradley nearly pick-six Chadwick on a pass to Dykas, but Chadwick went to Dykas on the next play with the glue-fingered catcher snagging an out pass and ducking under Bradley and scampering 25 yards to the end zone with 9:31 still in the half, 21-13, Bellamare's kick blocked.

Clay got a shot before the half with a first at the Orange Park 33 with 3:21 to halftime and Thomas snagged an inside screen to cut Orange Park's lead to 21-19. A double quarterback formation; Rapoza to Chadwick to Rapoza, got an illegal formation flag on Rapoza's pass catch from Chadwick into the end zone to force a second try that got intercepted by Bradley.

In the third period, Johnson blasted a 36-yard touchdown pass play from Taylor to put Orange Park up 41-25 with 9:57 in the third.

For Clay, Thomas picked up the ensuing kickoff from the Clay 40 and ripped to the Raider five-yard line to set the Blue Devils up for a score with Rapoza following his offensive line to put the game at 41-32.

"Coach Flaherty always says about the offensive line that he wants these five guys up front all the time," said Clay center Cody Mobley. "The mindset, the Clay way, is always don't quit and we think it starts with us moving people up front. Our mindset is just block for whoever is behind us; Merrick or Landon."

A Clay onsides kick failed to go 10 yards and Orange Park took over at midfield, but Clay defensive back Neo Addison intercepted an underthrown Taylor ball to give Clay possession near the Clay 19-yard line.

Two plays later, Orange Park defender Orlando Jackson intercepted a Rapoza 50-yard bomb attempt to Dykas in front of the Raider end zone to put the Raiders offense back on the field.

After Clay took over near midfield with an unsportsmanlike flag getting a Blue Devil first down to open the fourth quarter. Orange Park's defense held with Rapoza being stopped a yard from the goal line on a fourth down run, but Orange Park was forced to punt out of the end zone.

The result was a sliced 35-yard scoring pass from Chadwick to Dykas that got the score to 41-39 before the last two-minute theatrics.

"Always pays to have a guy like Payton catching your passes," said Chadwick. "

He throws suggestions all the time as to what he sees out there on the field."