By Bryan Davis
Daily Times Leader
Every player was exhausted, the sun was three hours gone, and the rain was falling hard, but the West Point football team was going to the beach anyway late Friday night.
The reason? It was a reward for one of West Point’s biggest regular season wins in years.
Behind a stout defensive effort and bruising ground game, West Point won its 16th straight game here Friday night with a 14-0 shutout victory over Daytona’s Mainland High.
After the game, West Point head coach Chris Chambless gave the team something to cheer about. He told them as they gathered around that he was treating them to a late-night trip to the beach. After that, an emotional Chambless reflected on a game that should propel his team into the national spotlight.
“It’s nice to come all this way and get a win,” Chambless said after the game. “I was worried a little about their legs, but I thought adrenaline would take over, and it did.”
The Green Wave seemed unfazed by the 650-mile journey, taking control of a physical football game late in the first half and refusing to relinquish it. By the end of Friday night’s opening game of the Gridiron Challenge, the crowd of 400 West Point supporters in the visitor’s bleachers had plenty to cheer about.
Senior running back LaKenderic Thomas scored two touchdowns – the first on a two-yard run in the second quarter, the second on a 14-yard scoring burst in the fourth – and rushed for a game-high 107 yards on 25 carries to lead the West Point offense.
But this night was about defense, and the West Point troops came to play. The Green Wave defense limited Mainland to just 106 total yard of offense, and harassed Mainland QB Shelton Willis into a 4-for-17, 53-yard performance.
“It’s the most physical football game I’ve seen us play since I’ve been at West Point,” Chambless said. “I couldn’t be any more proud of a team than I am right now.”
While the Green Wave had their advantages, like actually having a regular season game under their belt before kickoff on Friday, it still seemed like they were the underdogs.
Mainland had home field advantage, as the Bucs were not required to drive 14-plus hours to get to the game site, they had a packed and loud student section, and a roaring band, but it seemed like West Point used every one of those points to their advantage.
Mainland gave the Wave every bit they could handle for four quarters. When West Point was invited to play the Buccaneers in the “Gridiron Classic” in the Spring, this was exactly the kind of muscle for muscle game the promoters were dreaming of. For Mainland, it might have been the type of game they are used to, but they would have certainly preferred a different final score.
“Give them a lot of credit,” said Buccaneer head coach John Maronto. “They had a lot of discipline and a lot of heart. They are a very fundamentally sound team. “
Maronto is the first guy to tell you that West Point has something special, because he knows his players gave it 100 percent.
“I’m very proud of our kids,” Maronto said. “Our kids played their hearts out, and we are going to have a heck of a football team here in Mainland.”
Friday night’s contest was Mainland’s first regular season bout, and the Bucs’ head coach thinks that it was just what the doctor ordered for his team.
“We knew we were playing a heck of a football team here,” Maronto said. “Our kids played hard, and they didn’t disappoint anybody on our staff. This game will make us a lot better. I’m so glad we played these guys.”
Friday night’s intensity level on the Green Wave sideline is something Chambless and his coaching staff hopes to see throughout 2010.
“During the course of that ball game, you were in the zone the whole time,” said Chambless. “There was no lull.”
Defense dominated the first half, as West Point limited Mainland to three plays or less in each of its first five possessions. On the night, Mainland collected just six first downs.
Mainland’s defense was just as good, holding the Green Wave offense in check until the final minute of the first half, when Thomas broke through for the Wave’s initial score. Kwame Williams added the PAT to give the visitors a 7-0 lead.
“Mainland played extremely well,” Chambless said. “They hit us hard, but we hit them back, and we were able to find and do some things. The coaches did a great job in game planning.”
Fortunately for the Green Wave, the entire second half seemed to mirror the first. After time expired on the third quarter, with the Wave still leading 7-0, West Point would again see a scoring drive deep in the fourth.
It wasn’t 11:20 into the fourth, but it was a little under half way. With 8:03 to go in the game, West Point was seeking insurance.
Their faith was turned to none other than the first half’s hero, Thomas. With the ball situated at the 14 yard line of the Bucs, Thomas took the ball, and he dodged about four tackles, diving head first over the goal line, almost desperately for the score.
After the game, it was all smiles from a team and a coaching staff which took this challenge in their program’s history very seriously.
“We could have looked at this as a vacation and an exhibition game,” Chambless said. “We didn’t. We came down here with a mission, and our guys stuck to that mission.”
The defense played a huge role in the game, holding Mainland to zeros on the scoreboard, but Chambless was quick to point out another line of players who were directly responsible for the victory.
“The offensive line played tremendous,” Chambless said. “LaDerrius Taylor was a force at center, keeping control of everything. He was just tremendous.”
West Point ended up amassing 236 total offensive yards in the game. Mainland was held to just 107.
The Bucs had 57 yards rushing and 53 yards in the air.
Cox was 2-for-7 in the air for the Green Wave, collecting just five yards, but his ground game, which included 84 scrambling yards was second only to Thomas.
Thomas had 25 rushes for 107 yards on the night. He scored both of West Point’s touchdowns.
Mainland had six first downs, and West Point had 15 first downs in the game.
The Green Wave will have next Friday night off, a week three in which a match with Columbus was scratched. They will rest and prepare to take on Starkville on September 10.