Patriots fall to Knights 25-17 in 1st round of state playoffs

Davion Nelson scores Patriots first touchdown. (Ron Morris)
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Shai Wheeler completes a pass for Patriots. (Ron Morris)
Wheeler fakes a hand-off to #10 Brevin Caldwell. (Ron Morris)
Trevor Bryan scores 2-point conversion behind Melsy Bonilla. (Ron Morris)
TE Tyson Clawson leads block for Shai Wheeler. (Ron Morris.
Patriots defense in action # 5 Ronnell Garrett with hit and Brian Morgan #6 finishes play. (Ron Morris)
Davion Nelson breaking tackles behind good blocking. (Ron Morris)

The Independence Football Patriots played the first playoff game since 2014 Friday night and came up short in a hard fought contest against Ardrey Kell.

Without first team quarterback Arnold Taylor, the Patriots were one dimensional on offense running the ball 61 times with only 8 pass attempts. In fact, they came out again with their jumbo package and modified single wing formation that was effective against Myers Park.

The writer enjoys this kind of rock and sock em’ football as it brings me back to my own days of playing high school football as the quarterback calling plays, however, my job was primarily being a blocking back. In single wing football, the halfback throws the ball downfield and he is the best passer on the team.

This is what head coach Mike Natoli deployed effectively throughout the contest and it kept the Patriots very competitive all night in a damp and cold evening. Both Davion Nelson and Shai Wheeler would rotate in and out of the halfback, quarterback, and slot or old style single wing formation wing back positions which kept the Knights defense guessing. The Pats had a good game plan and used their two talented backs extremely well in their offensive scheme.

In the first half, the Patriots featured powerful running back Davion Nelson who carried the heavy load during the first two quarters of the football game. By the intermission, Nelson had accumulated 145 rushing yards, and a 33-yard touchdown run on 26 carries. While, Wheeler was used sparingly on ball carries. He mostly was a decoy picking up only 15 yards on 7 rushes while handing the ball off to the team’s workhorse Nelson.

Ardrey Kell took the opening kick-off from their own 17 yard line and was forced to punt with the Patriots defense led by Tyson Clawson, Omar Zazueta, Sirr Robison, Taejuan Smith, and Melsy Bonilla who stopped the Knights quick running back Brooks Stankavage  on a 3rd down and 4 play with a gang tackle just one yard short.

The Patriots took over, however, they could not mount a drive and were out quickly. The punt came off the side of the foot of punter Alex Brutsman, he was under pressure from the rush, putting the ball on the Patriots 40 yard line, giving the Knights excellent field position.

The Knights would take advantage of this opportunity, after a penalty by the Knights on a good gainer by quarterback Jared Joseph down to the 26-yard line, it would give the Knights a 1st down and 16 from the 32. Joseph connected on a slant pattern to wide receiver Michael Hetzel for 30 yards down to the two. On the next play Joseph would run off tackle and score the game’s initial touchdown putting the Knights up 7-0.

Independence gained 9 yards on the next possession. On the punt, Brutsman was run into by the Knights and a roughing the kicker penalty gave the Patriots a first down at their own 49-yard line. Davion Nelson picked up 11 yards on a nice effort, he would rumble for another 9 yards on the next play. Then Nelson and Wheeler combined to put the ball on the 33-yard line for a first down. On the next play, a hand-off to Nelson off tackle, with some good blocking by the offensive line, found daylight and rumbled into the end zone to make the score 7-6. The coaches decided to go for the 2-point conversion which failed, giving the Knights a one point advantage.

In the second quarter, on a third down and 6 from the 13-yard line, Joseph would find Stankavage for a touchdown putting the Knights up 13-6. The PAT was blocked by the Patriots with 11:55 on the scoreboard clock.

Later in the quarter, the Knights would expand their lead to 19-6 on a 67-yard drive that culminated when Joseph found Cedric Gray in the end zone for a 16-yard touchdown pass reception giving the Knights some breathing room with 5:29 remaining in the first half.

On the next possession, the Patriots would respond putting together a nice looking drive, however, they came up empty. Starting from their own 20, Nelson would put together runs of 8,3,6,4,21,2, yards on consecutive runs for 40 yards. While completing a halfback pass to Brian Morgan for a 20-yard gainer. With the ball now inside the 20-yard line and 2.0 seconds on the clock, on a 3rd and 4, the coaches opted to try to run the ball instead of kicking the field goal into the wind. Wheeler was stopped only after a two-yard gain to end the first half.

In the second half, late in the third quarter, the Knights would put together another drive starting from their own 32-yard line. On a fourth down and 12 from the Patriots 19, Joseph would connect with Nathaniel Francis for a 19-yard touchdown pass putting the Knights up 25-6 giving them a comfortable lead with 3:26 remaining in the quarter.

The fourth quarter belonged to the Patriots. After a poor punt forced by a strong pass rush and wind the Pats would take over on the Knights 28-yard line. Nelson would pick-up a yard on first down when four Knights tackled him at the line of scrimmage. On the next play, Wheeler would shake and bake his way into the end zone, turning on his afterburners giving the Pats their second touchdown. The Patriots lined up for the PAT, on the snap, holder Trevor Bryan would take off for the end zone to score the 2-point conversion making the score 25-14.

The Patriots defense held the Knights on their next possession with a huge 4th down stop with 3:56 remaining in the game. The Wheeler show went into motion, the senior would pick-up 7 yards, then scamper for 32 yards, run for 7 more and another 12 yard gain. Wheeler then would locate Bryan Morgan on a 20-yard pass reception down to the 3-yard line with the clock running down with only 12 seconds remaining. The coaches called a timeout, they opted to kick the field goal which was easily made by Ryan Howe to make the score 25-17.

On the ensuing kick-off, the Knights would recover the on-sides kick to end the game and prepare to play in the second round against powerhouse Myers Park.

The Patriots gave the home town fans a great season, they ended up 6-6, however, the Pats could have been better if they did not suffer some key injuries. With Taylor, Nelson, Caldwell, Garrett, Philips, Robison, Myron Blair, Khalil Morrison, RJ Spivey, Elijah Puranda, and others, the Pats have a solid group returning. Also, a cadre of good Junior Varsity players who should make an impact. Next season could be very interesting.

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Ed Berti
Ed is retired and remains active as a freelance writer, local journalist and independent contractor. He is engaged in print and electronic media writing stories covering business, sports, hometown news and veteran's affairs including articles of interest to various media outlets. Ed is a graduate of Wagner College where he earned an MBA and holds a BBA from Pace University.
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