TAMPA — After going down early in its season opener against Wharton on Friday, Jesuit scored 17 unanswered points, all but making its 16th straight victory a done deal. The Wildcats, though, weren’t ready to give up just yet.
Late in the fourth quarter, a sturdy Wharton defense stopped the Tigers for a loss on three consecutive plays, forcing a punt. When the Wildcats took over, running back Stacy Gage quickly found the end zone on a 12-yard touchdown, cutting Jesuit’s lead to four.
The Wildcats were well within reach. Jesuit senior running back Joquez Smith, who missed a trip to the end zone when he fumbled at the goal line late in the third quarter, took that as a personal challenge.
On the first play of Jesuit’s ensuing drive, Smith ran for 58 yards, setting up his own 9-yard, game-sealing touchdown on the very next play. It was enough to lift Jesuit to a 24-13 win against Wharton.
“I wouldn’t trade him for anybody. He’s a little fireball,” Jesuit coach Matt Thompson said of Smith. “He gets fired up, and it’s not just about him. He understands that he wants everyone to get the ball, everyone to get involved.”
A matchup between two powerhouse defenses and a pair of teams that went deep into the postseason just a season ago, Friday’s game promised to be a battle from the beginning. The first quarter ended without a score, but midway through the second, Wharton struck first, taking advantage of blown Jesuit coverage to score on a 74-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jackson Jensen to running back Arkese Parks.
“We had a young guy blow a coverage, and that stuff happens,” Thompson said. “But we didn’t freak out. It’s just a learning curve. We learn from our mistakes, and hopefully we don’t make them anymore.”
Several minutes later, Jesuit tied the score in similar fashion, with quarterback Luke Knight hitting wide receiver Willy Suarez on a 64-yard touchdown pass. Jesuit kicker Jack Ferreri gave the Tigers the lead with a 36-yard field goal less than a minute later.
The Tigers rolled in the third quarter, scoring again when Knight connected with wide receiver Jarriett Buie Jr. for a 31-yard touchdown, simultaneously keeping Wharton’s dynamic offense at bay. The Tigers appeared poised to go up by even more with less than two minutes to go in the third when Smith rattled off several runs, setting up a would-be 8-yard touchdown.
But as he tried to reach for the goal line, Smith fumbled, and the Wildcats recovered.
“It made me mad,” Smith said, “so I was like, ‘I’ve got to go get one.’”
He did just that.
Jesuit’s victory in Friday’s season opener continues the momentum started by the the state championship squad from a year ago. Jesuit had a perfect 2021 season, and it hasn’t lost since falling to Plantation American Heritage in the 2020 state title game.
But Friday’s win gave the Tigers a little extra reason to celebrate, as it was Thompson’s 100th at the helm for Jesuit. Thompson, an Armwood alumnus, has reached the milestone quickly, with Friday’s game being the first of his 10th season at the school.
It’s a benchmark Thompson doesn’t even like to mention to the players who helped him get there.
“One thing about Coach Thompson ... he don’t make it about him. Every time somebody tries to give him the credit, he’s like, nah,” Smith said. “I love him, we all love him, and that’s why we play for him.”