BAKER COUNTY - Orange Park High football was stunned by a 90 yard kickoff return that turned a comeback 15-14 lead late in the fourth quarter to a stunning 21-15 loss to Baker County High School Friday night in the heart of downtown Macclenny.
"That kickoff was 100 percent my fault," said Orange Park coach Tom Macpherson. "I'm not going to say what happened; bad coverage, bad tackling, but it was my fault."
In a contest that used to be a district 5-5A leaderboard determination clash, the rivalry was not lessened just because, one, Orange Park and Baker County are now in different districts, and, two, Macpherson is four years removed from being a Baker County High head football coach.
"It's a great day to be a Raider, because tonight, I think we showed that we can play up to this environment and the Baker County High's tough program," said Macpherson. "We physically played with Baker County tonight; toe-to-toe, punch-for-punch against a team that was always physically better than us and it's good to see."
The Raiders entered the very tough environment of Baker County's downtown down one key ingredient; speedster Alex Collier at tailback who was on a college visit determined earlier in the season, but then challenged by the moving of the game due to a hurricane threat two weeks ago.
Replacing Collier would be sophomore Terrance Johnson, younger brother to former Raider great Terrance Johnson (yes, same name), who was one of the Raiders' most versatile weapons the past four years.
"Terrance had a tough night for us and made some plays, but he is young," said Macpherson, noting his 114 tough yards on 26 carries. "Kids want to be the guy like Alex and get 30 reps and score five touchdowns, but I think Terrance's body physically was not ready for a night like tonight with a team like Baker County."
With the win, the Raiders set themselves up as top candidate for the elusive district title and the missed playoff berth from last year that came by way of losses to Baker County and Menendez. Orange Park has Eastside and Menendez in the next two Fridays as pointed games to put Macpherson in the playoffs. Eastside lost to Ridgeview, 14-12, on Friday while Clay took Menendez to overtime before losing 44-43.
"Bottom line is win the games and you win the district," said Macpherson, who appreciated Clay's near win over Menendez, but commented that the new math of the playoff system is bewildering. "Try to do the math. I like that Clay is battling all the way to the end and, if Ridgeview comes up with a win over Menendez this week, that's good for us. But, you still have to win games."
In the first quarter against Baker County, both moved the ball grudgingly as defense held front court with Orange Park defensive end Kendy Charles handling the line of scrimmage and defensive back Stewart Udell manhandling the secondary as the Wildcats threw sporadically toward the sidelines to try and loosen up their usually stout between-the-tackles attack.
Baker County did break for an apparent 30 yard score, but a flag negated the effort and Orange Park got a break on a muffed punt by returnman Diego Soto that teammate Sean Dixon recovered at the Raider 12 to retain possession.
From there, Raider quarterback Vincent Walker, Johnson and Dixon combined talents to put together a 12 play drive that got the Raiders to the Wildcat 40 with a fourth and two. Dixon would finish with five catches for 79 yards to lead the Raiders.
Punter Lee White calmly came in and executed a perfect fake punt pass play to Dixon that put Orange Park at the five yard line as the first quarter ended.
On the first play of the second quarter, Johnson powered in behind Charles to put the Raiders on the board up 7-0.
A long kickoff return preluded a 50 yard touchdown run for Baker County who quickly erased the Raider lead with a 7-7 effort just 22 seconds later.
On the ensuing Raider possession, Walker opened with a pass and run by Soto that got a facemask flag added to it to move Orange Park to the Wildcat 42.
The drive stalled and Baker County looked to add to their slight lead, but two of his four sacks from Charles and a diving pass breakup from safety Spencer Kirkham ended the half safely. Charles had 10 tackles for the night.
In the third, with Baker County looking to halt the Raider momentum, an interception choked a Walker pass at midfield leading to a Wildcat touchdown and a 14-7 lead with 10:17 left in the third quarter.
Orange Park again put down a run-strong offensive drive of nine plays that ate up five minutes of clock but failed on fourth and eight with a five yard run by Johnson.
A stuffed screen pass by Udell quickly upended Baker County's drive with a punt putting the Raiders at midfield.
Johnson pounded the Wildcat line with Walker directing another nine play drive that ended with a punt.
Baker County tried to reinvigorate their ground game four with first downs in a drive starting at the Wildcat 19, but ending at midfield due to efforts from Julian Moore and Cameron Broughton on defense.
With 8:56 left in the game, Dixon returned a punt 22 yards to the Wildcat 26 to flip the field for Orange Park with an 11 yard pass play to Soto putting the Raiders at the Wildcat 16.
Consecutive carries by Johnson got the ball to the one yard line where Charles entered and threw his massive 255 pounds up the middle for the score to put the Raiders within a point, 14-13, before Dixon caught a two point conversion for the 15-14 lead with 6:32 to go.
Then, disaster, with Baker County returnman Tracy White speeding up the Wildcat sideline for the 90 yard score.
In a turn of events that nearly spelled upset for Orange Park, both teams fumbled on consecutive downs with the Raiders ending up with a first down at the Wildcat 41 with 4:29 to go. A fourth and 13 pass to Soto was swatted to end the game.