You know the bar has been set high with the Miller Career Academy Phoenix football team when both the head coach and defensive coordinator are reluctantly pleased with a come-from-behind overtime triumph, which was the case recently when they outlasted Public High League foe Gateway Tech 28-22 at Roosevelt.
"We played badly today," said Phoenix head coach Sorrell Harvey, moments after running back Marquis Stewart had scampered home on a 15-yard sweep to seal the deal. "We were kind of flat. Our guys played down to their level and they played up to our normal level. They played well. They just jacked us. We didn't play well enough to win."
Likewise Phoenix defensive coordinator Chris Cooper accepted the win but acknowledged that a good club can't become too complacent.
"I'm pleased with that (the victory)," conceded Cooper. "But when you get a team like that down, you can't lay down against a program of that caliber. You can't start to take them lightly just because they've been struggling this year."
Cooper was alluding to the fact that his Phoenix took a 14-8 halftime lead and the momentum into the second half against a rebuilding Jaguars team, which dropped to 1-3. However, mindful of the fact that the Jaguars have won multiple league and district titles in recent years, and have sustained a level of winning despite significant graduation losses, Cooper said his club can't take beating Gateway Tech, or any other team for granted.
Apparently that message registered last weekend, when Career Academy overwhelmed its next league foe, Roosevelt 58-0, leaving nothing to chance. The Phoenix are now a perfect 5-0, going into a PHL contest on Saturday afternoon against their former chief nemesis, the Vashon Wolverines (3-2) in a 1:30 p.m. kickoff at Gateway Tech.
"We've just got to keep fighting and not take any team too lightly," said Phoenix star running back Marquis Stewart after the Gateway Tech win.
Stewart, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound junior, is one of the entire metro's most prolific rushers with 904 yards and eight touchdowns on just 80 carries, which is good for a ridiculous 11.3 yards per carry. As a transfer last year from Confluence Academy, Stewart was ineligible to play with the varsity club last season when it went 10-1 overall and 9-0 for the regular campaign. Stewart is certainly making up for lost time, as it were.
"I just felt like I was disappointing the team, not being able to play on the varsity," explained Stewart. "This year I was more motivated."
"He (Stewart) works harder than anybody on the team and he's consistent," said Career Academy assistant coach and junior varsity coach Richard Cowper.
Stewart ended up rushing for 171 yards on just 16 carries in that Gateway Tech tussle, but he saved his best run for last when he out-finessed a Gateway Tech defender towards the end zone.
"I saw him coming straight at me and I was going to try to run through him, but I made a move and luckily my speed took me to the outside," explained Stewart.
"We just didn't seal that edge," said Gateway Tech coach Jason Dulick.
For Gateway Tech, which has since dropped to 1-4, it represented a chance for the Jaguars to gain a level of respect in a campaign laden with injuries and inexperience. The Jaguars had the rare distinction of boasting two rushers last season who eclipsed the 1,400 yards rushing barrier in Corbin Mason (1,595 yards and 13 touchdowns) and Michael Ball (1,460 yards and 18 touchdowns), but unfortunately for them both graduated. Zach McBride is still around, though, and he scored on two touchdown runs to go along with Joseph Collins' 22-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown against Career Academy, mistakes and miscues eventually doom the Jaguars, who have an emerging young quarterback in freshman Antonio Cunningham.
"We played to the end," noted Dulick, who look both drained and disappointed after the loss. "But we've got to learn how to finish. It was a good, competitive PHL game. It was better than our record indicated."
As for Cunningham, who is easily a dual threat as a passer and runner, Dulick said: "He made some good plays. We put him out there. We put in the fire. We like to put our play-makers out there. We just don't have enough of them now. The effort was there. Mistakes just killed us. We've got to take small steps. But we can be better than our record."
Speaking of records, Career Academy's mark is a lofty 23-4 since the start of the 2011 season.Stewart is one of several new stars who have emerged from a Phoenix program, which does not seem to miss a beat despite key graduations every season. Among the departed were all-state linebacker Gabriel Loyd (192 total tackles and six sacks and four fumble recoveries and interceptions each), quarterback Trevon King (2,620 yards passing and 28 touchdowns, running back Devan Roberts (1,087 yards rushing), receivers Marvante King (37 catches for 802 yards) and Darrell Lomax (23 for 462 yards) and massive offensive line that featured normal big like Carlos Jordan (260 pounds) and NFL-size big like Charles Ryland (355) and Luis Sanchez (330). Despite all of the aforementioned departures, the Phoenix continue to flourish, but don't count Harvey as among those who couldn't see it coming.
"I'm not surprised by the play of this team," said Harvey. "We have had a successful JV (junior varsity) program for three years at 21-3. Plus this is the freshman group I started with when I came here as varsity coach. Marquis Stewart is up from the JV squad. I left most of the guys on JV for two years. The defensive players are good, smart athletes and tough football players. We have all new kids on the offensive line, so we are encouraged by their commitment to playing together and putting in the needed work."
Aside from Stewart being the more exclusive focal point of the rushing attack, the Phoenix have spread the wealth around the rest of the unit. For instance, two quarterbacks have been splendid taking over Trevon King: Jaylen James has completed 18 of 24 passes for 474 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions for a passer rating off the charts of 210.818, while his signal-calling partner Derrion Twitty has completed 25 of 55 passes for 518 yards and four touchdowns. Meanwhile Javon Collard (seven catches for 283 yards and four touchdowns) and Mark Frazier (10 catches for 211 yards) have sparked a talented receiving corps. Defensively, led by under-sized but aggressively adept end Ra-Sheen Bolden (57 tackles and four sacks), the Phoenix have been posted two shutouts and held host Cahokia to 13 points on its own field in a 30-13 Career Academy win.
Bolden, Karon Thomas, Valentino Armendaiz and middle linebacker Darrel Collins are among that stout unit, which had been anchored by Loyd the last couple of seasons.
"It's kind of tough to live up to what he did, but we know we can still play great on defense as a team," noted Bolden.
Collins, also undersized for his position at 5-8, 175, said as a unit,"we've just got to keep fighting through the games and not take any team too lightly. We can't let the hype get to us. We've still got to go out and play hard."
This is why it's also 'not surprisingly' that Harvey likes the overall makeup of his squad.
"I like this team because it is smart and tough," said Harvey. "Plus I'm the only coach they have had in high school."