LACEY TWP. – The Lakewood football team has twice been on the brink of elimination this year, both literally and figuratively speaking.

When the Piners stared down the possibility of another lost lead and elimination at Lacey Saturday during Saturday’s NJSIAA South Jersey Group III quarterfinals, they played like a team that has overcome much worse because, in fact, they have.

Senior quarterback Zyheir Jones accumulated 237 combined yards and three touchdowns on the ground and in the air and the defense denied Lacey on a number of key possessions to give Lakewood – the No. 6 seed in the bracket – a 22-14 win over the No. 3 Lions.

Lakewood senior Zyheir Jones. (Photo by Matt Manley)

The Piners began their summer not knowing whether or not they would have a season at all and even once they were granted another lease on life, two injuries to major players helped contribute to a 1-4 start that threw Lakewood’s postseason chances in serious jeopardy.

Four weeks later, Lakewood is now on a four-game winning streak and headed to the sectional semifinals against No. 2 Woodrow Wilson.

“From us not having a team, to us having a team and starting 0-2, losing to Lacey earlier in the season to coming back here and dominating – we wanted this,” Jones said. “We wanted to play Lacey again and show them what we are about. Everybody thought we were going to quit. We could have easily handed our stuff in, but we didn’t do that.”

“People might not think this is that big of a deal, but this is big for us,” Lakewood coach L.J. Clark said. “I’ve never been around a bunch of seniors who have shown so much resiliency. It’s almost storybook.”

Although the Piners scored first late in the first quarter Saturday and never gave up the lead, the specter of a regular-season loss to Lacey on Oct. 7 hung over their collective heads as they tried to finish off the fifth playoff win in program history and first since 2014. In that game four weeks ago, Lakewood squandered a 27-13 third-quarter lead and Jones threw a key interception late to help Lacey rally for a 34-33 win.

“It was heartbreaking the last time we played them,” Jones said. “We lost by one point and I threw an interception at the end of the game. This game, we kept our composure. We felt good about today. Everybody the cold would hurt us, that we were too soft, but we fought through it and got the win.”

Just as they did the first time the two Shore Conference Class B South rivals met earlier in the season, the Piners took a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter thanks to two key defensive plays and a scoring play from an unlikely source. Senior Jyheir Jones recovered a fumble on the Lacey 20 yard-line on the Lions’ first second-half possession and after Lakewood turned the ball over on downs in Lacey territory for the second straight possession, he picked off Lions quarterback Coleton Krauss to give his team the ball back at the opponent’s 33.

The third time proved to be the charm for Lakewood as second-half possessions go. Zyheir Jones lofted a touch pass over the middle to running back Myles Jackson who gashed the defense for a 33-yard touchdown catch and run. After Zyheir Jones reached over the goal-line on a two-point conversion run, Lakewood had extended its lead to 22-7 with 3:44 left in the third.

“They were keeping the safety on the two-receiver side so we had three guys on one side and (Jackson) in the middle, so nobody was covering him,” Zyheir Jones said. “They stopped us twice in a row. We wanted to get right on the ball and score a touchdown.”

Jackson began his senior season at Donovan Catholic before transferring to Lakewood after the start of the season. He has been part of the team for the last five games, during which Lakewood is 4-1. On Saturday, he earned his stripes for the Piners with his most important play since joining his new team.

“Myles Jackson comes in from Donovan and makes the biggest play of the game,” Clark said. “That’s kind of the story of the season. We have 24 guys suited up, we’re pulling guys off the street and they are contributing. It’s incredible and it’s a testament to the leadership of these seniors.”

Lacey responded to Jackson’s touchdown with one of its own exactly three minutes later. Justin Gorski returned a short kickoff 34 yards to the Lakewood 38 yard-line and the Lions offense went to work. Lakewood forced Lacey into a 3rd-and-15 right off the bat, but for the second time in the game, running back Jason Giresi broke off a big run on 3rd-and-15. Giresi turned the left corner for a 31-yard run down to the Lakewood 12 yard-line and on 3rd-and-7 from the 10, he again found daylight around the left edge to score and pull the Lions within eight following Kevin Hayes’s extra point.

Giresi led Lacey’s offense with 114 yards on 17 carries and a pair of catches for 20 yards. Giresi’s three longest runs and four of his five longest runs on Saturday came on 3rd-and-long – including two 3rd-and-15 plays and two on 3rd-and-7.

Lakewood had two chances to extend the lead to two touchdowns again, but Lacey’s defense held both times. With under four minutes to go, Lacey forced a punt and Jyheir Jones pinned the Lions back at their own three yard-line with a high spiraling punt that he deadened on the grass inside the five.

The Lions advanced to midfield thanks, in part, to a personal foul on Lakewood for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a defenseless receiver, but an intentional grounding call killed the Lions’ momentum and led to a 4th-and-15. Zyheir Jones broke up a wide-receiver pass play with a little more than a minute left and took two knees to run out the clock.

“The bottom line is losing teams find ways to lose and winning teams find ways to win,” Clark said. “These guys have shown they are winners. We started the year with injuries all over the place and we had to dig out of it, but these guys never stopped fighting. I still think we’re the best team in Ocean County when we have everybody out there and we’re finally getting there.”

Although the Lions came up short, their defense rose to the occasion in the second half by limiting Zyheir Jones to 34 yards on 13 carries in the second half after he gashed them for 92 yards on nine carries in the first half, including touchdown runs of nine and 11 yards. Jones did pick up his play in the passing game in the second half by completing 4-of-8 attempts for 97 yards.

Zyheir Jones finished with 126 yards on 22 carries and 6-for-13 through the air for 111 yards. His line could have been better if not for three drops by Lakewood receivers. Jyheir Jones did most of the damage among Lakewood’s receivers, hauling in four passes for 71 yards.

Lakewood’s defense matched Lacey’s in the second half by holding the Lions interior running game in check. Giresi and the Lions to most of their damage running outside the tackles and away from senior defensive tackle Josh Lezin. Both defenses only surrendered one second-half touchdown and both drives started inside their own territory.

“Total team effort today,” Clark said. “Zy gets all the headlines, but Josh Lezin at the end of the game – oh my goodness. He was a one-man wrecking crew.”

Zyheir Jones opened the scoring with a nine-yard run with 1:26 to go in the first quarter and ran in the two-point conversion to make it 8-0. Lacey came right back with a scoring drive of its own, capped by a three-yard touchdown run by Anthony Tobia.

Zyheir Jones again led a scoring drive on the ensuing possession, ending it with an 11-yard run to the endzone, although his two-point run came up short with 5:56 remaining in the half.

Lakewood’s quarterback play highlighted exactly what the Piners were missing for the first two weeks of the season, during which Zyheir Jones sat out with a dislocated elbow. After watching his team score 15 points in a week one loss to Manchester and get shutout by Donovan Catholic, Jones returned to lead and offense that has since averaged 30.3 points per game and had not scored fewer than 27 until Saturday’s win.

“Not a lot of guys would come back from the injury he had and play the way he has played,” Clark said. “He got cleared the Thursday before the Jackson Liberty game (in week three) and walked into my office, threw his brace on the table and said, ‘I’m playing. The team needs me.’”

The Piners have also been without standout senior offensive tackle and Temple University commit John Paul Rodriguez since he broke his collarbone in the week one loss to Manchester. According to Clark, Rodriguez is cleared to play and will start next week at Woodrow Wilson.

“You talk about an emotional lift – at halftime, he was in there pleading with the guys, ‘I want to play my senior year,’” Clark said of Rodriguez. “And the kids were like, ‘We got you, man.’”

 

Box Score

Lakewood 22, Lacey 14

Lakewood Lacey
First Downs 16 12
Rushes-Yards 36-185 34-176
Passing 6-13-0 6-12-1
Passing Yards 111 53
Fumbles-Lost 2-0 3-1
Penalties-Yards 5-60 5-30

 

1 2 3 4 F
Lakewood (5-4) 8 6 8 0 22
Lacey (7-3) 7 0 7 0 14

 

Scoring Summary

LAK – Zyheir Jones 9-yard run (Zyheir Jones run)

LAC – Anthony Tobia 3-yard run (Kevin Hayes kick)

LAK – Zyheir Jones 11-yard run (run failed)

LAK – Myles Jackson 33-yard pass from Zyheir Jones (Zyheir Jones run)

LAC – Jason Giresi 10-yard run (Kevin Hayes kick)

 

Individual Statistics

RushingLAK: Zyheir Jones 22-126, Kyrie Jenkins 8-30, Dante Morris 3-21, Myles Jackson 3-8; LAC: Jason Giresi 17-114, Chris Fino 3-40, Coleton Klaus 7-12, Anthony Tobia 3-7, Cory Gudzak 4-3

PassingLAK: Zyheir Jones 6-13-0 111; LAC: Coleton Klaus 6-10-1 53, Dylan Gudzak 0-2-0 0

ReceivingLAK: Jyheir Jones 4-71, Myles Jackson 2-40; LAC: Jason Giresi 2-20, Dylan Gudzak 2-12, Cory Gudzak 1-11, Tanner Miick 1-10

Interceptions-Return Yards: Jyheir Jones 1-0

 

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