How top-ranked Benedictine beat Hurricane Matthew

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An ambulance responding to a call passes a swamped vehicle on President Street that tried to cross flood waters to Tybee Island during Hurricane Matthew on Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016, in Savannah. Curtis Compton /ccompton@ajc.com

When Benedictine Cadets coach Danny Britt heard the call for Savannah to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Matthew, he decided to stay put. A few days later, as Friday night turned into Saturday morning, he began to wonder if he’d made the best choice for his family.

“At the time, I was confident in staying,” said Britt, who’s now in his sixth season at Benedictine, a private military school located in Savannah, which was expected to get hit by Matthew. “At 1:30, Saturday morning I was no longer confident. It’s amazing, really. The wind was so extreme and random. I’d look out the window and trees were bent in one direction, then I’d look across the house out another window and trees were blowing in a completely different direction. I thought, how is this happening?”

While Matthew spared Savannah of greater damage suffered in other areas including South Carolina and Haiti, the coastal city 250 miles southeast of Atlanta was still hit hard. Homes were severely damaged. Piers and boardwalks were destroyed. For Benedictine, damage included flooding to parts of the campus and its athletics facilities and loss of power.

Though it could have easily been much worse for the Benedictine community, the fact remains that Matthew rolled through in the middle of the Cadets’ football season. The Cadets are currently Class AA’s No. 1 ranked team with a 7-0 record and are two seasons removed from a state title. Nothing to date could stop the Cadets on the football field, not even Atlanta’s St. Pius X, a ranked school from AAAA that they beat on the road on Sept. 2.

But Matthew was a different story. He stopped the Cadets in their tracks.

On Monday, Oct. 3, days before Matthew touched down in Savannah, it became obvious to school officials that he was very serious, and that action had to be taken.

“We saw it coming and you’re thinking (Matthew) could go here, or go there,” Britt said. “By Tuesday, it was clear we needed to think about doing something (about the football schedules) because our JV team played Brunswick and our freshman team played Glynn Academy. It was an open week for the varsity team. So we immediately moved (the freshman and JV games).”

On Tuesday, the varsity team practiced. As Matthew would have it, that would be the last practice the team would have together for an entire week — a layoff unheard of in the middle of a football season.

“As we went through (Tuesday), we we realized we were going to have to evacuate,” Britt said. “Our principal (Dennis A. Daly) called the staff in and said today would be the last day of school for this week.”

It would actually be the last day of school for the next two weeks. For the Cadets, team unity was fractured by the evacuations. Players scattered all over, to Atlanta or Athens, or left the state for Alabama or North Carolina.

Cadets starting quarterback Nick Iannone went to Atlanta to be near family and stayed for almost a week.

“It really messes up your routine,” Iannone said. “(The team) stayed in touch through group text. We’re all good friends. We were texting coaches with questions because we knew there was nothing we could do but wait. Our team was all over the place and obviously you can’t practice like that.”

Instead of ramping up for a crucial Region 2-AA home game against Toombs County scheduled for Oct. 14, the Cadets were in limbo. A far cry from the intense environment that’s created by a midseason practice.

“It was boring,” said junior linebacker Kyle Jackson, who evacuated with his extended family to a mountain home in Clarkesville. “There’s nothing to do in the mountains. I just laid around and slept a lot.”

On Monday, Oct. 10, Matthew was gone but the damage was there to stay. The school was without power and would remain closed through the week. Football practice was canceled and, more significantly, it was evident Savannah State, where Cadets home games are played, was unfit to host the Toombs County game. That was also supposed to be Benedictine’s homecoming game, but not any longer. The two schools arranged for the game to be played at Toombs County.

Both teams were 3-0 in region play, so first place was on the line. And still, the Cadets hadn’t practiced since Oct. 4. Meanwhile, the Toombs County Bulldogs, whose campus is located 85 miles west of Savannah in Lyons, far from Matthew’s tracks, had the opportunity to practice in the week leading up to the game.

“I was worried that they were practicing and we hadn’t,” Jackson said.

By Tuesday, most of the Cadets team had returned to Savannah. Though Benedictine was closed, the players were itching to get back on the field. They were days away from having to travel to Lyons for a game with huge playoff implications and they weren’t going to sit around any longer. They were in the process of organizing a players-only practice amongst themselves when, finally, Britt informed the team they could practice that day.

“On Monday night we got approval from the headmaster (Reverend Frank Ziemkiewicz) and (Daly). A number of our kids and some starters were still evacuated and others still had no power so they needed another 24 hours.”

On Wednesday, just two days before game day, the Cadets finally had their first full varsity practice in more than a week.

“It felt weird,” Iannone said. “It felt like the first practice of the year.”

The first few practices were about getting back into game shape. Or at least, as much as possible. The practices consisted of almost entirely condition drills.

“You could tell they had lost that,” said Britt, referring to midseason conditioning. “We lift every day, even on game days. There’s a very standard routine Monday through Friday that we’re accustomed to and that was thrown off kilter.”

More than anything, the players were just relieved to get back on the field. But with just three days to prepare, would the Cadets be able to put the past week behind them and play a football game?

“We knew once we got back on the field, we’d be ready and focused,” Cadets senior slot back John Wesley Kennedy said. “I just wanted the team as a whole to show it.”

By the end of the first quarter, the Cadets led 7-0. In the second quarter, the game began slowing down for them and they returned to midseason form, jumping to a 21-7 lead heading into halftime. By game’s end, the Cadets had completed their mission and beat Toombs County 42-13 to take full control of the region and inch closer to a No. 1 seed for the playoffs.

Cadets running back Tyleek Collins led the way, rushing for 220 yards and two touchdowns on 13 carries, which earned him Georgia High School Football Daily “Top Performances” considerations.

“We were definitely as excited as you could imagine,” said Iannone, who completed 11 of his 13 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns, according to stats posted on the Savannah Morning News website. “We were faced with adversity with Hurricane Matthew and no practice. We’re looking to next week now and winning those games. And really, we’re looking forward to getting better for the playoffs.”

As much as they were itching to get back on the field last week, there’s a much bigger itch to get back to the playoffs. Last season, they marched through the regular season and first two playoff rounds without a loss before Fitzgerald knocked them off 54-28 in the quarterfinals.

“We know the rankings don’t mean much,” Iannone said. “My freshman year, we were ranked No. 2 or 3 in the state but we won a championship. Last year we were No. 1 all year and Fitzgerald beat us pretty good, so we all have that taste in our mouth. We know there are good teams out there so you’ve got to do your thing or you’re going to get beat. Our goal is to do the best we can and ultimately win state.”

On Tuesday, Oct. 18, two weeks to the day since Benedictine last held class, the school opened its doors for the first time since the threat of Matthew emerged. A sense of normalcy is slowly starting to return as students, faculty and staff begin to charge back into the grind.

For the Cadets, it’s business as usual again. They’ll practice through the week. They’ll play at Bacon County on Friday. And years from now, when strictly looking at the 2016 results on paper, no one will be able to see what the team, school and community endured. But they’ll know. They’ll remember evacuating. They’ll remember coming back and rallying as a community. Some members of the Cadets volunteered in projects to clean up and restore damaged neighborhoods. Britt and his staff headed to Daly’s house to help clean up.

They’ll see an invisible win that took place during the bye week: a win over Hurricane Matthew.

While it’s far from normal for a team to be separated for a week in the middle of the season, all things considered it may have benefited the Cadets as the regular season winds down.

“I think it brought us closer as a team,” Kennedy said. “We learned that the next practice is not promised. We came back working a lot harder. I think, at the end of the day, it made us a better team.”


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