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Commanders take Long route back to semis
Nov 18, 2012 12:00 am
A.J.'s five touchdown passes send Friendship past Marion County
By ANDY REED
After scaling A.J. Long back in recent weeks, Friendship Christian coach John McNeal unleashed his quarterback's full force on Marion County in Friday's Class 2A state quarterfinal at Pirtle Field.
The junior transfer from Pennsylvania passed for five touchdowns and accounted for 344 total yards in the Commanders' 49-12 conquest.
His favorite target was senior wideout Stefan Remus, who caught three of the five scores and finished with 145 yards on five catches. He also ran three times, one of which was a 10-yard touchdown. Dillon Hodges also caught a pair of 16-yard scores
"It just came with tonight's game," Long said after doing more passing and handing off than running in recent games. "Our game plan was to get our backs the ball on the outside and let them run. And then we realized their defense was trying to flow outside to stop that. So we ran our duck - we read it and the middle was wide open. It was just a great call by Coach."
Long completed 13 of 19 passes for 245 yards and ran 11 times for 99 more. Several of the catches were of the diving variety.
"This is a special group of guys," Long said of his defending Tennessee state champion teammates. "When the ball is up in the air, they go and get it, and there's no doubt in their mind that they're going to come down with it. I'm blessed to have them on my team and I just want to win a state championship for them."
While Friendship returns to the state's final four to host Boyd Buchanan next Friday, it's Long's first trip to this level. His previous school, Pius X in Bangor, Pa., was put out in the Keystone State's quarterfinal round last year.
And with the semis set for 7 p.m. at Pirtle Field on Black Friday, Long won't be doing any shopping that day.
"Never really done it before, so it's not a big deal," Long said of hitting the stores the day after Thanksgiving. "I'll probably just sleep in and let my mom do that."
"Practicing on Thanksgiving means you're one game away and that's what it's all about," McNeal said after his Commanders reached their third holiday week game. "We're excited to have another opportunity to be able to make that happen."
Marion County used special teams to strike first as Blake Zemen returned the opening kickoff 80 yards to the Friendship 17-yard line, setting up Hamilton Shoemaker's 15-yard touchdown run for a 6-0 lead.
But Friendship quickly zipped downfield for a tying touchdown on Remus' 12-yard reverse. And even as Steven Hollis was running 28-yards for a go-ahead touchdown and Long hit Hodges with the 16-yard scores sandwiched around a 63-yarder to Remus for a 35-12 halftime lead, it became apparent the Warriors' offense was one-dimensional.
While Marion County ran for 226 yards, the Warriors missed all 11 of their passes, two of which were intercepted by Hollis and Remus. It was Hollis' diving pick which set up Long's long one to Remus on the next play. On the other side, Remus appeared to be the target for most of Zemen's passes and the sophomore knocked down just about every one of the throws.
But Marion used special teams to set up another score as Shoemaker returned a kickoff 39 yards to just past midfield. Zemen, the quarterback, ran 48 yards to the 1 and took it in himself on the next play to bring the visitors within 28-12.
Long whipped touchdown passes of 21 and 15 yards to Remus in the third quarter to get the clock running continuously and sealing Friendship's trip to the semifinals with an 11-1 record.
"We knew offensively they had a very good team and they had scored a lot of points," McNeal said. "We sure thought the kicking game would come in our favor and early on, it didn't. We challenged our kids at halftime on the kickoffs. We got some things straight."
The Commanders accumulated 528 yards of total offense while holding Marion to 226 on the ground as the Warriors returned home with a 9-3 record.
"We were able to make some audibles in the second half when we caught them with no safeties," McNeal said. "We didn't [run Long] in certain games when we didn't need it. There's no reason to run him and let him take hits and stuff. We knew coming down toward the stretch we were going to have to, and we did last week.
"I was proud of our defense. We tried hard this week to be disciplined and make sure receivers weren't just running loose on us. Our guys did a great job with their reads."
Boyd Buchanan beat Grace Christian 35-13 in Knoxville to improve to 12-1. Next week's semifinal will be a rematch of last year's quarterfinal in Chattanooga in which Friendship edged the Buccaneers 21-20 in overtime.
Sports Editor Andy Reed can be reached at 444-3952, ext. 17; or by email at email@example.com