This isn’t the same Independence Patriots football team from the past few seasons.
The team started hot last year, too, as the Patriots won three of four and then dropped two of their past seven, including forfeiting two for fighting in the Rocky River game.
This year, their record says 2-2 after coming back on upstart Ardrey Kell, only to have the Knights take advantage of a huge call in the game that probably decided the outcome.
With Independence up 30-26 and the third quarter winding down, Ardrey Kell quarterback Jared Joseph fired an incomplete pass on fourth down that would have given the Patriots the ball on a turnover on downs near midfield.
Instead, the pass interference call – which appeared to be flagged even though it was an uncatchable pass well over the receiver’s head – moved Ardrey Kell down the field.
On the next play, Joseph hit star receiver Cedric Gray with a 19-yard touchdown pass to give the Knights the lead. They would go on to score 17 unanswered points to win the game.
When it was over, as customary, Patriots coach Mike Natoli gathers both teams in prayer at midfield.
“These kids are like brothers and there are bigger things than football,” he said following the game.
But the Patriots are growing up on the field right before our eyes, too. This team is very talented and very young in spots after starting a host of sophomores last season who are better suited for it this season.
This isn’t the team that dominated high school football for a decade, but it’s definitely one that’s on the rise and doing it the right way.
When the Knights went up 26-9 with just over four minutes to play in the first half, there was almost a sense of calmness on the sidelines from the players.
Junior quarterback Arnold Taylor had just thrown a costly interception on the drive before, but as he set to put his helmet back on, he encouraged teammates to stay positive and keep fighting.
And the Patriots did behind junior running back Davion Nelson, who is Independence’s next big offensive star. Coming back from ACL surgery, Nelson wears a big brace on his rehabbed knee.
But the power with which he runs is sort of symbolic of this team, and when Nelson gets going, so do they.
With them down 17 points and needing a play, Nelson delivered time and time again. On the night, he ran 26 times for 222 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns. His touchdown run right before the half cut the lead to 26-15 after the 2-point try was unsuccessful.
But down big on the road, the Patriots never panicked.
Last week, down 21-0 to Olympic, the Patriots fought back to 27-28 but went for a 2-point try toward the end of the game that wasn’t converted, resulting in their only other loss.
They were back in a similar spot and knew just what to do.
“I’m proud of their effort and the way they fought back all night,” Natoli said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 11 or 21 points that they’re down, these kids have been through much more than that, so that is nothing for them to overcome. At halftime we just talked about staying the course and they came out and did that. We saw them getting a little tired there right before the half, and we wanted to come out and attack.”
After the break, Taylor connected often with junior Brevin Caldwell (six catches, 109 yards). He found senior receiver Trevor Bryan (two catches, 16 yards) twice in the second half with touchdown passes to get the Patriots ahead 30-26.
That is where all of the air came out of the sails on the controversial fourth down pass interference, but just getting to that point says something about Natoli and his team.
The Patriots have a bye week to sort it all out after consecutive losses, but Natoli and his staff have the program headed back toward the playoffs for years to come.
First off, the players believe in Natoli and the staff he’s assembled. You can see it the way they listen to him and the way they fight for him. And they’re young with Nelson, Caldwell, sophomore running back Khalil Morrison and Taylor at the skill positions. Defensively, juniors Tyson Clawson and Sirr Robinson are among the conference’s best defensive ends, and fellow juniors Jeremy Phillips and Ronnell Garrett help complement the senior leadership.
Time will tell what ultimately happens to this Patriot team, but there is a lot to like on the roster for the foreseeable future.
As Natoli addressed his team following the loss, he told them it should hurt to lose, but they will improve on their mistakes and move forward.
“I like their effort,” he said. “Ardrey Kell has at least three (Division I) guys on their defense and they’re a good team, but we made too many mistakes. We’ll take the bye week to rest, but we’ll come back strong.”