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Dragons use late scoring burst to down Gryphons


Two words is all it took for Collierville Head Coach Mike O’Neill to sum up the play of Cole Johnson: “War Daddy.”

“He is a War Daddy,” he said. “He is a kid that gives everything he has. He wants to be on the field nonstop and he gave it both on offense and defense.”

With a career-high 213 yards rushing, Johnson scored two touchdowns, had 25 yards on two kick returns, caught one pass for 23 yards, made five tackles from his outside linebacker position and led the Dragons to a 31-13 victory over St. George’s on Friday in the first meeting between the neighboring schools.

A senior, Johnson, who had 22 carries, accounted for all but 25 of the Dragons’ 238 rushing total.

“Cole Johnson was tremendous tonight, the energy he brought to the team,” said Collierville quarterback Matt Connors. “Cole had a great game on defense.”

Wide receiver Marcus Bersoza said, “Cole definitely picked up the team. He put us on his back and carried us the entire way.”

Three fourth quarter touchdowns helped the Dragons (5-3) break open a 9-7 game. A 34-yard punt return by Bersoza to the Gryphons’ 8-yard line led to Johnson’s second touchdown. Johnson’s 17-yard kickoff return started a drive that gave Collierville a 24-13 on a 12-yard touchdown run by Connors and a fumble recovery by Jordan Wright led to Connors’ second touchdown with 2:50 left and an 18-point lead.

“The first half we came out kind of slow, not really much happening,” said Johnson. “We told the team that we have to step it up. St. George’s is a good team. The run game was working pretty well and we took advantage of it,” said Johnson. “My offensive line did an awesome job tonight. My line was pushing forward and I try to keep my feet moving.”

Pushing forward were offensive linemen Austin Kelley, Peyton Francis, Michael Gildart, Tanner Mayfield and Kendaris Malone. They helped spark the Dragons to surpass their win total of four last season (two wins were forfeited) and give momentum for this Friday’s Region 7-6A battle with Houston at 7 p.m. in Collierville.

“They are key guys who made plays,” said O’Neill.

Playing the hardest schedule in school history which has pitted the Gryphons against schools four times larger, they fell to 3-5 with the homecoming loss.

“We are obviously out-numbered, out-sized, we are just playing with heart,” said St. George’s quarterback Spencer Smith. “We are doing things the way they should be done. We are executing. We are 3-5 but three games we won were good battles. We won against a team with 110 players (Center Hill) and we had 25. They (Dragons) did not think we were going to come in here and give them a fight. It was 9-7 for almost half the game. It was definitely a reality check to them and the rest of Memphis that we are here and we are going to fight no matter who we play.”

Smith said it was the best St. George’s defense has played through three quarters.

“It was really a flip situation. Our offense is putting up 35-40 points a game.” Through seven games, Smith has averaged 223.10 yards passing per game, completing 121 of 196 for 1,562 yards and 16 touchdowns. Smith completed 10 of 26 passes against the Dragons for 86 yards.

Timber King scored two touchdowns and got the Gryphons’ first score on a fake field goal in the second quarter.

Austin Wall had lined up to kick a 29-yard field goal but Nick Seward threw a pass to King from the 6-yard line. Wall’s extra point cut the Dragons’ lead to 9-7 with 4:02 left before halftime.

“I thought it was a good play. I thought it was a good call. We needed some points,” said Gryphons running back Bryan Payne, who had a team-high 116 yards rushing on 20 carries.

Smith said, “When we scored on that fake field goal, we got hyped. Everything was looking good from that point. We were in it until five minutes into the fourth quarter.”

Gryhpons Head Coach David Carter, who has been selected to coach the Blue team in the Liberty Bowl Auto Zone All-Star game on Dec. 9 at MUS, said the Gryphons “strung together three great quarters against a team four times our size.”

“We were able to sustain good football for three quarters and grow. We have had trouble finishing in critical situations this season and our guys got over that hump. They wore us down and we lost our edge a little bit in the fourth quarter,” he said.

O’Neill said that defense kept the Dragons in the game.

“We had a pretty good game plan defensively. They run 28 different formations,” he said. “They have a great quarterback and really good receivers.”

A game-changer was Bersoza’s punt return to the 8. Johnson scored on a 1-yard run for a 15-7 lead after his 6-yard run got him to the 1. Connors ran a two-point conversion and it was 17-7 with 10:57 left in the game.

“We were able to pound it in from there. That was definitely a huge turning point,” said Connors.

“That really got the momentum back on our side which we needed,” said Johnson. “Once we get momentum we are hard to stop.”

Said Bersoza, “I saw an open area. I just hit it and it clicked from there. The first half wasn’t that good but coming together at halftime, we definitely stepped it up.”

O’Neill said of Bersoza, “He is always a threat to make big plays.”

Connors said Bersoza “stood out” with two rushing touchdowns.

Connors completed 14 of 27 passes for 117 yards and entered with the fourth most passing average (230.40) in Shelby-Metro. In seven games he had completed 125 of 215 for 1,613 yards and 20 touchdowns. Smith entered as fifth most in passing average.

“He has had a great year,” said O’Neill of Connors. “Our receivers have run really good routes.”

“We have a lot of playmakers and I have a lot of help from my team,” said Connors, who has talked with “a few” Div. 1 college programs.

Bersoza, who has a team-high 596 yards receiving in eight games and seven touchdowns, had 62 yards against the Gryphons on 13 receptions.

A third baseman, Bersoza has a full-ride to play baseball at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

Connors’ second rushing touchdown of the season came with 4:44 left in the game on a 12-yard gain for a 24-13 lead. The Dragons iced the game when Wright recovered Payne’s fumble on the 17. Connors then ran 15 yards for a touchdown three plays later and a 31-13 lead with 2:50 left.

“That fumble close to the 20 really helped us and shifted the way of the game,” said Johnson.

Carter said, “The punt return hurt. We felt like we could climb back into it. The fumble at our 20 was a broken play and it was an easy TD for them and our guys kind of deflated a little bit.”

O’Neill thought more points would be scored by both teams in a game that he termed “emotional.”

“These kids run in the same circles so that was important for out guys and it was important to their team, too,” he said.

Collierville took a 6-0 lead on Johnson’s 45-yard run, his longest of the game, with 9:23 left in the first quarter. Myers’ 24-yard field goal increased the lead to 9-0 with 4:05 left in the first. Johnson’s 23-yard pass reception from Connors keyed the drive.

The Gryphons began their scoring drive when Met Proctor intercepted Connors, only Connors’ fourth interception this season, at the Dragons’ 48 and returned it to the 32. Smith then threw a 25-yard pass to Seward for a first down at the 12. A 6-yard pass from Smith to Justin Bray got the Gryphons to the 6. On fourth down and four, the Gryphons went for the fake field goal and Seward hit King for the touchdown with 4:02 left in the second quarter. Wall kicked the PAT and it was 9-7.

In the third quarter, Payne had a 22-yard gain, Bray a 14-yard pass reception, Johnson gains of 11 and 16 yards.

Bray and Wright each had a pass break-up.

In the fourth quarter, St. George’s cut the lead to 17-13 when King scored from the 1 with 6:38 left. A 10-yard run by Payne, a 10-yard reception by Bray and 18-yard run by King fueled the drive.

“He doesn’t usually run the ball that much but there was one play he dragged about four people down. He is a beast,” said Smith of King.

The Gryphons, who host First Assembly Christian School at 7 p.m. this Friday, had 180 yards rushing. King got 37 on six carries, Smith 25 on six carries.

“Bryan Payne and Timber King were a big help in the run game. Our O-line (Jacquavious Pryor, Colton Turner, Cameron Turner, Cameron Head, Will Irby) put some stuff together. That was special,” said Carter.

With an offer from Union College in Kentucky, Payne said, “I felt like I had a pretty solid game. I hit the holes good overall.”

He has not made a decision where he will play college football.

Smith’s primary receiver, Bray had 40 receiving yards on five receptions, Seward 38 on five receptions and Isaac Smith nine.

For Collierville, Justin Stonework had 17 yards on two catches, Kayvon Anderson 14 yards, Corey Fitzpatrick 9 and Auggie Burke 7.

Collierville’s Wyatt Raines had a game-high 11 tackles, Cade Cupp 9, Virgil Pryor 8, Datrion Hope 7, Jordon Wright 6.

King made 9 tackles for St. George’s, Proctor 8, Payne and Conner Richardson 6 each. Nick Bourdeau is also a leader of the 4-3 base defense.

“The cornerbacks played very well. Virgil Pryor, Jordan Wright, Evan Chatlosh had a really nice game up front. Wyatt Raines is always making plays,” said Connors.

Wall averaged 34 yards on five punts and Myers 37 yards on three punts. O’Neill was pleased with kickoffs by freshman Sam Cardenas. He had 332 yards on six kickoffs including a 60-yarder and a 55.33 average.

“Boy he can boot it. Remember his name. He is going to be a major prospect,” said O’Neill.

Carter has been pleased with Smith, who has backed up Ben Glass, now in college.

“He has worked really hard a couple of years backing up Ben. He is a student of the game. He knows what the other team coverage is and he knows how to get us into a good situation so that our offense can function,” he said.

With a goal to play in college, Smith, who directs the spread offense that has a healthy mix of a power and spread look, said, “I watch a lot of film. I think my work ethic on weekends is causing me to be one of the top quarterbacks in Memphis.”

Trying to kick up the schedule a notch, Carter said that it will help the Gryphons compete at the highest level.

Johnson is expecting to play at the next level.

“I have a couple of teams talking to me, nothing huge. But I am grateful for anything,” he said.

After the game, Connors was grateful.

“We got the win and that is all that matters,” he said.

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