After missing two scrimmages and the first three games of his senior season with a wrist injury, Jamestown High wide receiver Tyler Highley could hardly contain his excitement ahead of his 2017 debut Saturday against Grafton. Eagles quarterback Hunter Brittain was happy to know his favorite target was returning.
Highley caught 32 passes from Brittain a year ago, second-most in the Bay Rivers District regular season. Through three games this year, all losses, it was no secret what was missing from the passing attack.
“I’m back, I’m real excited and I can’t wait,” Highley said. “Me and Hunter, we played in middle school together, so I’ve known him since then. We really started to click sophomore year, when we started to throw the ball a lot more and got new coaches. We’ve just become good friends and it’s just been trust and chemistry that’s propelled us.”
Their chemistry returned immediately against Grafton, especially in a momentum-changing touchdown drive late in the second quarter. With the Eagles trailing 12-0, Brittain threw a high pass for a leaping Highley, who came down with a 14-yard catch on fourth-and-4 for a first down on the Clippers’ 21.
“We’re really close,” Highley said. “He knew he could put it there and I’d go up and get it, and I did.”
Two plays later, Brittain threw to Highley on a slant for a 10-yard touchdown that pulled the Eagles to within 12-7 at halftime. Yuri Passenita scored on a 17-yard run in the fourth quarter as the Eagles (1-3) beat the Clippers 13-12 for their first victory of the season.
“This team knows what it’s like to win now, so it’s just going to be easier to know what we’ve got to do to get a win each week,” Brittain said.
Expect the Brittain-to-Highley connection to play a part in those winning weeks. Brittain completed four passes to Highley against Grafton for 40 yards, numbers that are typical for them.
“Tyler and Hunter have a great relationship and both are extreme competitors,” Jamestown coach Donnell Brown said. “Tyler is a great route runner, has great hands and adds experience.
“Hunter has a great arm, a great pocket presence, is accurate with his passes and is a great runner for us. He was close to the 100-yard mark in the (Smithfield) game.”
Against Grafton, Brittain, who threw for more than 1,000 yards as a sophomore and junior, was more pass-oriented. He completed 10 of 17 attempts for 104 yards.
The Eagles dominated possession to clinch the victory. They ran 17 plays, 15 of them on the ground, to the Clippers’ five in the final nine minutes. Brittain credits the experienced offensive line for the team’s balance.
“I think this is the best offensive line we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Brittain said. “Guys like Zach Pope, who’s been starting at center for three years, he can block any front.
“Jack Cudzik, who’s just starting (for the first time) this year, he’s a big guy, has strength and he knows who to block. Zach Hattab, great blocker too.
“Drew Wilder, big guy, good quickness off the ball to block defensive ends. Connor Gilfillan, he’s not as big as our other guys, but he’s strong and can hold his own.”
For all of the challenges of being part of a program struggling for much of their four seasons, Brittain and Highley will remember Jamestown football fondly, thanks in large part to their fellow students in “Gang Green.”
“They’re great,” Brittain said. “They’re always chanting and cheering no matter what the score is, win or lose.
“The atmosphere in school, everyone’s asking, ‘Are you going to the game? Are you going to the game? Come on, man, you’ve got to go to the game.’ ”
Highley said, “It’s incredible. We have the best student section, the most loyal fans, the best fans.
“They’re always out there screaming and hollering no matter what. It’s really a blessing that we have all these people out here and they support us even through our troubles.”
O’Brien can be reached by phone at 757-247-4963 and follow on Twitter @MartyOBrienDP