Brode’s Blue Jays win new coaches battle

Tribune Chronicle / Eric Murray Chalker’s Jacob Baker runs the ball behind Gabe Cernuto (60) as Jackson-Milton’s Austin Mercer prepares to make the tackle. The Blue Jays won the game, 34-0.

NORTH JACKSON — Friday night’s season-opener between the Jackson-Milton Blue Jays and Chalker Wildcats featured a pair of first-time head coaches looking for their first win.

Nathan Brode’s Blue Jays got the best of Tom Conrad’s Wildcats in a 34-0 rout.

“This was nice. The athletes played really well tonight and I was very pleased with the outcome,” said an elated Brode. “I’m just in a good mood right now. We moved the ball really well, and then in the second-half, we found ways to finish.”

Jackson-Milton (1-0) clearly won the battle of field position in the early going, but it was unable to finish drives. The Blue Jays faced a fourth-and-16 at the Wildcat 31 on their second drive when punter Zak Lane faked the punt, but he gained just 12 yards, handing the ball back to the Wildcats.

In the second quarter, however, Jackson-Milton finally found its rhythm. JM started at midfield early in the quarter, and after a pair of 4-yard gains and a penalty, faced a third-and-7 from the Wildcat 47.

Michael Liberato dumped it off to Jimmy Harper on a screen, and Harper proceeded to gain 16 yards. A Liberato 7-yard gain was then followed by a Taylor Kleinknecht sweep, in which Liberato stutter-stepped to the right, and Kleinknecht took the inside handoff and went untouched 24 yards to paydirt.

Just over a minute later, JM found the end zone once again, but this time, it was thanks to the defense. Trystan Mollohan’s pass went right to Nicholas Scarl, who raced into the end zone from 24 yards out to increase the Blue Jay lead to 13-0.

In the second-half, JM’s running game caught fire, as the team utilitized a Wildcat offense — no pun intended. Four of five plays on a JM scoring drive were “quarterback keepers” from Ryan Staton, the final resulting in a 31-yard Staton score.

On the next drive to open the fourth quarter, it was Jimmy Harper’s turn to run the Wildcat offense. Harper gained 35 yards on four straight carries and capped the drive by plunging in from 1 yard out, increasing the Blue Jay lead to 27-0.

“(Harper and Staton) can both run the football really well,” Brode said. “It’s great when you have a couple guys that can get in and it doesn’t matter who it is — they both put in the work and they gain yards. It’s great to have as a staff.”

As for Chalker (0-1), it added roughly 15 new players to a 27-player roster. Unlike previous years, the Wildcats are making a bigger commitment to throwing the football, as Mollohan had 19 pass attempts in the game.

For Conrad, new coaching responsibilities have presented new challenges, but so far, he’s impressed with his team’s grit and effort.

“I’ve really enjoyed my first few months here — anytime you get a chance to influence a kid’s life, like my coaches did for me, the experience is great,” Conrad said. “Those 27 guys got each other’s backs, and we as coaches really care about those guys. We gotta go down and teach and stay on the fundamentals, focus on tackling — it was good in the first-half, (but in the) second-half we kinda fell off because I think we were tired. We gotta condition a little bit more, but we only had one scrimmage and it was three weeks ago.”

The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are seeking a third-straight postseason trip, but they will have to do so with a new coach and quarterback at the helm. JM rushed for 205 yards in its first outing of the season, but it also was flagged for 10 penalties and 90 yards.

For Brode and company, another winning season will come down to fixing mistakes in practice.

“Penalties are the main thing,” Brode said. “Some of the holding calls we gotta work on with those guys in individual (drills) and things like that in practice, but we’ll get there.”