Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 9, 2011



RESERVE — If you’re looking for a showcase game in the first round of the state football playoffs, look no further than Tad Gormley Stadium this Saturday at 1:30 p.m.

No. 15 Brother Martin will host No. 18 East St. John in a matchup that boasts two seemingly evenly matched teams that attack in very different ways. The Wildcats boast quarterback Darion Monroe and a deep, talented receiving corps, while Brother Martin looks to wear teams down via running backs John West and Jabaar Singleton.

While it’s always dangerous to look at other matchups and draw concrete conclusions, one look at how the two teams did against common opponents certainly suggests a barnburner is in store: Brother Martin faced a pair of ESJ district foes in John Ehret and Higgins. It defeated Ehret by 28 and lost to Higgins by four.

The Wildcats, like wise, defeated Ehret by 28, and fell to Higgins by four.

“It’s a good matchup,” said East St. John coach Phillip Banko. “They’ve got the kicking advantage. I think we’ve got it at quarterback, though their guy is very good. Their offensive line is strong, and their defensive line as a whole is probably better, but our guys have been playing real well for awhile now. I think it’s going to come down to which team makes the least amount of mistakes.

“But I’ll take my players any day. I love ‘em. And I’m sure their coach would say the same about his guys.”

East St. John has plenty of motivation, even beyond “Win or go home.” The Wildcats have a long streak alive of reaching the postseason. But East St. John also hasn’t won a playoff matchup since 2005, losing in the first round in each of the last five seasons.

Banko said before the season that his top on-field priority was ending that streak, and that’s clearly where his focus lies. It’s where he wants his team’s focus solely on, as well: he’s banned brackets from the locker room and even bracket talk. He doesn’t want his players looking even a second past Brother Martin.

One thing that will aid the Wildcats on Friday is the return on middle linebacker Devonte Johnson, the team’s leading tackler, averaging 10 a game. He has missed the last three weeks due to injury. Tailback Jalen Kenner also could be back.

“That will be a big lift,” said Banko of Johnson. “We’ve had some guys really step up at linebacker in his absence, but he’s a big boost. Jalen’s not all the way there yet, but if he gets himself a little bit closer, I’ll be feeling real good.”

Brother Martin finished 2-2 and in third place within District 9-5A. The Crusaders fell to Rummel last week, 24-17, in a game to determine second place behind Jesuit (which, if it wins, would face the winner of ESJ/Brother Martin in the next round).

Banko always pays extra attention to special teams, and as such he said that one of the biggest impact players in the game could be Crusaders’ kicker Michael McCarthy, generally regarded as one of the state’s very best kickers. McCarthy set a school record earlier this season by making all five of his field goal attempts in a win over St. Augustine. He’s also a skilled punter as well, meaning ESJ will have its hands full in the battle of field position.

Where that battle will take place holds a special place in Banko’s heart. Tad Gormely Stadium, he said, is a place he’s coached many times before, and he said he’s honored to do it again.

“I try to convey to my kids, Tad Gormley is probably, short of the Superdome, the premier place for high school football. If you win there, even if it’s the regular season or a jamboree, it’s meaningful. A lot of great players have played on that field, and a lot of championships have been decided,” he said.

He’s also continuing convey the importance of team, something he believes his players fully buy in to. Banko recently called upon Derron Thomas, former ESJ tailback and University of Miami standout, to speak to his players on that subject.

“He told them that he played on the highest scoring East St. John team in history,” said Banko. “But that they didn’t win the district title because they weren’t a true team. And these kids, I believe they’ve bit into that pie. They’re believing. They want to play for each other.”

ESJ won a shootout last week over Bonnabel, 45-32, and clinched a share of District 8-5A in the process.

Monroe passed for 216 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. Rashad Green caught five passes for 155 yards and two scores and Marcus Robinson caught three passes for 64 yards.

Clarence Scott boosted ESJ early in the second half, returning the opening kickoff of the half 69 yards for a touchdown. Soon after, ESJ forced a fumble and Monroe dialed up Green for a 33-yard score. And Xavier Lewis soon returned an interception 33 yards for a score — ESJ scored three times in the first 1:30 of the second half. The Wildcats led 42-19 after three, then held off a late Bonnabel flurry.

“That’s a playoff game,” he said. “They had to win to get to the playoffs. It was senior night. They gave us their best shot, and we dealt with it. They’ve got a good team, but we had to play for what was in front of us: a district championship.”