SPRINGDALE – As Eleanor Roosevelt running back Elisha McDonald prepared to receive the handoff, a short gentleman wearing a brown, light jacket paced up and down the sidelines, shouting at the top of his lungs the running back’s height and weight.
As McDonald received the ball, the 5-foot-10, 215-pound senior running back ran through a hole for a 58-yard gain. For the first 15 yards, McDonald’s older brother, Quran Neischer, ran with the senior, screaming “feed him!” repeatedly as he flew down the sidelines.
“He’s that father figure because I didn’t have one,” McDonald said. “He motivates me to do better every time I am down.”
With family encouragement and the support of his teammates, McDonald rushed for 173 yards and two touchdowns to lead Eleanor Roosevelt to a 34-7 victory over the previously undefeated Charles H. Flowers in the 4A regional semifinals.
McDonald’s performance was crucial in the second half as the Raiders (9-2) needed a jolt after leading by just five points at halftime. During the final two quarters, the battering ram of a running back ran for 131 yards.
“This was a big statement game,” McDonald said. “It’s cold and it is hard to tackle you when you are running. I kept running hard and knew that they couldn’t tackle me, so I started running harder.”
Flowers (10-1) displayed its defensive prowess early as junior cornerback Sulton Woolbright intercepted Roosevelt quarterback Jaden Faulkner on the opening play of the game. Flowers running back Breaun Roderique capped off the ensuing drive with a 2-yard run for what would be the Jags’ only touchdown of the night.
Roosevelt responded with two time-consuming drives which took up the majority of the first quarter and gragged through the second. Faulkner scored both of the Raiders’ first-half touchdowns on rushes inside the redzone. Another attempt to throw the ball was thwarted by an interception by Flowers linebacker John Carr.
Still, Flowers could not establish a rhythm offensively, punting on its opening drive in the third quarter. Quarterback Julius Duvall, who finished 7-of-17 passing for 136 yards, was then intercepted by Raiders cornerback Solomon Douglas on the following possession.
The lack of scoring and the players’ lack of playoff experience hurt the Jaguars immensely, Head Coach Dameon Powell said.
“We had our chances offensively, and we were in the redzone a couple of times, but we just didn’t execute very well,” Powell said. “They capitalized with ball control and running the ball. When you don’t execute off of turnovers and mistakes, this type of stuff happens.”
The turnover set up McDonald’s first touchdown - a 34-yard sprint to the endzone in which he was untouched. The senior then scored on a 3-yard run to start the fourth quarter for his second score of the evening.
As McDonald exploded for big plays, Faulkner’s ball management and performance on the ground (113 yards) kept drives alive for Roosevelt. The senior completed just four passes all game – one of which was to wide receiver Noah Anderson for a 16-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to solidify the victory.
Memories of Roosevelt’s 25-19 loss to Flowers on Sept. 16 was considered history after the final whistle.
“We underestimated them the first time,” Faulkner said. “This time, we knew they could beat us and play hard, so we had to play harder every time we got on the field.”
Roosevelt will face top-seeded Dr. Henry A. Wise, Jr. in a rematch of the past two regional championships. This season, the Raiders were moments away from upsetting the Pumas before losing 21-14 during their regular season battle on Oct. 24.
“This is our fourth year in a row heading to the regional final,” Roosevelt Head Coach Thomas Green said. “We have been saying this from the beginning, if we don’t get out of the region, it is a disappointing season. We have the team that can do it so we are going to focus, do the best we can and hopefully, we can do it.”