LAKE ASBURY - Oakleaf Junior High football coach Merlin Smith had to outwit one of the county's most tenured minds in Wilkinson Junior High coach Robert Smith in order to come away with his 22-12 semifinal win in the Northeast Florida Athletic Conference playoffs last week at Wilkinson Junior High School.
Smith and his Yellow Jackets, led by quarterback Brandon Wallace and defensive tackle Elijah Shevchook, will play in the NEFAC championship game against Bradford County on Tues., Oct. 15 at Oakleaf High School in a rematch of last year's championship won by Bradford County. Bradford County did win an 18-0 regular season game over the Yellow Jackets in 2019.
In the football semifinal, Wilkinson struck first with defensive tackle Luke Wheeler pouncing on a kickoff return fumble and putting the Eagles at the Oakleaf 42.
From there, five plays later, fullback Austin Joiner pounded in from nine yards out to stun the Yellow Jacket sideline.
A 25 yard kickoff return from Oakleaf returnman Jaycen Lowery put the Yellow Jackets in prime time field position, but Wheeler got a sack to squash the Oakleaf offense.
Wilkinson again moved ruggedly behind the running of Joiner and quarterback Chandler Thomas together and 11 play drive to the Yellow Jacket five yard line. A highlight on the drive was a 26 yard pass play to tight end Jacob Lohse to the 13, but Oakleaf stopped the drive on fourth down with an incomplete pass in the end zone.
Starting from their own four, Oakleaf got stumped when Thomas stole the ball from running back James Kitchens to put Wilkinson's offense back on the field at the Oakleaf 23.
A play later, Oakleaf defensive back Jaycen Lowery picked off an end zone pass attempt to Xavier Branch to turn things around a second time.
From the Yellow Jacket 20, Wallace orchestrated an eight play scoring drive with his own one yard scoring run to tie the game at 6-6 with 15 seconds to the half.
Thomas ignited the Wilkinson crowd with a 60 yard kickoff return to the Oakleaf 20 before Thomas hit Lohse at the 10 that Lohse bowled over two Oakleaf defenders to score.
The PAT was missed to leave the score at 12-6 for the Eagles.
In the third, two crushing tackles; one by Caleb White, the other by Mason Carter stuffed Wilkinson's first offensive series to a fourth and 30 to go from the Eagle 19 yard line.
The ensuing punt got returned by D'Mari Bruce who caught the punt at the Wilkinson 30 and traveled back to the 19 to set up Wallace on offense. Wallace took three straight runs to the six before scoring from two yards out. A pass to Devaen Boykin put the Yellow Jackets up 14-12.
With a minute left in the third, Oakleaf linebacker Gauge Kendrick crushed one run while Donald Hampton sacked Wilkinson quarterback Cameron Garcia on fourth down.
Wilkinson got a second win after Wheeler scooped up another fumble to put the Eagles at the 31.
Shevchook crashed through the line on second down to give Wilkinson another long fourth down situation.
From the Wilkinson 37, Smith used White to hammer the Eagle defense with three handoffs putting the ball at the 14. From there, Wallace hit Kitchen for the insurance touchdown and the 22-12 final score.
Oakleaf got one final turnover at the 2:52 mark with Courtney Robinson intercepting a Wilkinson pass.