Willie Smith’s eyes lit up when he heard the total: 265 yards.
”Wow,” Smith said. ”In my first game? I was expecting 100 yards, minimum. But nothing like that.”
The freshman running back had touchdown runs of 70, 45 and 15 yards to lead Phoenix to a 62-20 victory Saturday against host Back of the Yards.
Both teams sat out the spring season because of COVID-19 and both have new coaches. Mark Morgan, who previously coached at Washington, has taken over the Bobcats. Longtime Curie assistant Bill Stritzel, who was recently at St. Ignatius, is now in charge at Phoenix.
The Firebirds are clearly following the old Curie blueprint. Phoenix quarterback Jamon Gooden didn’t even attempt a pass. He impressed as a sophomore and was frustrated sitting out in the spring.
”I wanted to be out there so bad,” Gooden said. ”It was tough missing my whole junior year.”
Stritzel said he thinks Gooden, who is 6-3 and 190 pounds, can play college football somewhere. He had six carries for 96 yards and three touchdowns and was also a force on defense, with three tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble.
”There’s no question he can play college football, and his grades are good enough to get him in,” Stritzel said. ”I heard there were coaches hoping to see him play over the spring. He’s been unbelievable. He’s a leader and has been a pleasure to coach.”
Stritzel took over the Firebirds’ program in June and has only 17 players.
”It’s been difficult,” Stritzel said. ”We haven’t had a lot of time to get ready, so there were a lot of mistakes, but the kids played hard.”
Phoenix junior Jose Lagunas also had a memorable first varsity game. He returned interceptions for touchdowns in the first and second quarters.
”On the first one, I wasn’t even looking at the ball,” Lagunas said. ”It came right into my hands. The second one, I had to run for it a little bit. I was nervous at first. But after we got the big lead, all my nerves went away.”
Back of the Yards is in full rebuilding mode. Sheamus Murphy, now the coach at Eisenhower, led the Bobcats to playoff appearances in 2018 and 2019. He was 28-10 in four seasons at the school and had built a solid culture. The program had decent numbers.
Morgan’s squad, however, took the field with only 17 players.
”It’s disappointing because it seems like we’ve been de-emphasizing the game of football and its importance in life,” Morgan said. ”That’s been hard to see. But we have some good leadership in CPS now and in the coaches’ association, so hopefully they will restore the game to prominence in the city and allow it to bless the kids and get them somewhere positive in life.”
Back of the Yards never gave up, despite the running clock in the second half.
Senior Jose Santoyo had touchdown runs of 76 and 31 yards for the Bobcats, and Axel Madero ripped off an 80-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter.
”We were losing horribly, but we just kept pushing,” Santoyo said. ”It was just amazing to be back out there. I missed playing. I missed the field. Honestly, I loved getting hit again. It was amazing. It gets me pumped.”