With Gerald Owens on the bench dealing with a bloody nose and his team leading by just two points, Connor Smith knew it was time to put the West Deptford High School football team on his back.
A do-it-all senior who is on the field for virtually every snap of the game, Smith converted two third downs into first downs, helping the Eagles run down the clock and eventually salt the game away with a late touchdown in a 36-28 Colonial Conference win over Haddon Heights.
Smith’s work, along with a pair of long runs by Owens, led to a Josh Cornelius 2-yard touchdown run with just 22 seconds left in regulation.
“I know I was hurting a little bit, but I knew the team needed it,” said Smith, who had 15 carries for 114 yards. “We needed those first downs to keep the ball in our possession and run the clock out. I just summoned up every ounce of energy I had to try and get to the first down line.”
Owens was again a standout with 151 yards and three touchdowns and Shai Mumford returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the second-straight week, helping the Eagles overcome a performance that had a few more mistakes than expected of a conference favorite.
“Our focus, our energy levels were not typical of a West Deptford football team,” Eagles head coach Clyde Folsom said. “Our energy and enthusiasm coming in here was flat, but that somewhat to be expected after the Woodbury game.
"Good football teams build off wins and focus and play a little harder the next week. I just hope this is a learning experience for us, but hey, we are fortunate enough to come out of here with a win against a very good football team.”
Though the coach wasn’t pleased with several aspects of the game, the play of Smith was not one of them.
“Connor Smith is this team’s unsung hero,” Folsom said. “He’s our iron man. He doesn’t come out of the game, never even asks to come out of the game. He never whines or whimpers or even makes a notion to come out of the game. Sometimes people don’t notice that, but it is very much appreciated. He is our leader. He’s not one of our leaders, he is our leader.”
The three-headed monster of Owens, Cornelius and Smith accounted for more than 300 yards, despite a valiant effort from the Garnets’ defensive line.
“It’s always difficult when there are a lot of options, and we know that as defenders against other teams,” Smith said. “It makes it a lot harder when you don’t know where the ball is going.”
Haddon Heights started the game on fire with quarterback Dante Pinckney connecting on his first five passes, highlighted by a 5-yard shovel pass to Brandon Joyner. West Deptford responded with a touchdown after a 47-yard run by Smith set up a 9-yard touchdown run from Owens.
The teams traded scores before the Eagles went up for good on a 4-yard touchdown run by Owens with 3:42 left in the half.
After the touchdown, the Garnets committed two personal foul penalties moving the kickoff up 30 yards to the Haddon Heights 30. West Deptford took advantage of the opportunity, going for, and recovering, an onside kick that it turned into a 31-yard field goal by Luke Cornelius for a 24-14 halftime lead.
On the opening kickoff of the second half, Mumford returned it to the house for a 76-yard touchdown, giving the Eagles a 30-14 lead, which looked insurmountable. However a fumbled punt led to a Haddon Heights score and a blocked punt in the end zone led to a second score. After Brandon Smith recovered the punt for a touchdown the Garnets went for a two-point conversion and the tie, but a running play was stopped to preserve West Deptford’s lead at 30-28 with 6:30 left.
Smith, Owens and the rest of the Eagles offense took care of business from there sending the Eagles to their third win in as many games.
“We knew all week that this was going to be a good football team,” said Owens. “We knew we had to come in here and we had to work hard.”
Owens said the team needs to have a better week of practice to avoid being in another nail bitter Friday against Sterling.
“We need to work on intensity on the practice field,” Owens said. "This week we came out flat on the practice field and it kind of showed.”