SEAGOVILLE — It’s easy to spot the signs of significant progress on the football field at Thomas Jefferson.
For example, its 28-21 win over Hillcrest on Thursday gave the Patriots a winning record in mid-October. You need to go back more than a decade to find the last such occurrence.
And prior to this week, TJ hadn’t beaten Hillcrest since the early 2000s despite the fact that they’ve played every year. They hadn’t even scored a point against the Panthers since 2010.
You get the idea. A playoff spot might be unlikely this season, but the Patriots (4-3, 2-2) at least have guaranteed their best finish since 2002. Players and coaches hope they’re building a foundation for future success, both on and off the field.
“Wins are byproducts of everything else you do. Wins are products of habits,” said first-year head coach Philip Murray. “If you believe in the process, then eventually you can start to achieve success. They want to show up and work, and want to believe they can win.”
On Thursday, the Patriots managed to overcome some miscues with some big plays down the stretch, including a 37-yard touchdown pass from Kendrick Bright to his brother Joshua with 5:29 remaining to break a 21-21 tie.
The winning touchdown immediately followed an interception by Devante Calhoun in the end zone that stopped a Hillcrest scoring chance. Calhoun’s 64-yard return gave the Patriots good field position.
Kendrick Bright completed just two passes in the game, but he also rushed for a game-high 111 yards and two scores.
Gkarri McCoy led the Panthers (1-6, 1-3) with 103 rushing yards and also scored a touchdown on a blocked punt return in the second quarter. Hayden Jackson kicked two first-half field goals for the Panthers.
Hillcrest got a tough break in the second quarter when game officials miscalculated down and distance deep inside its own territory. Following two penalties, the Panthers threw an incompletion on a third-and-10 play that was incorrectly ruled to be fourth down. TJ took over at the Hillcrest 15, and Bright scored the Patriots’ first touchdown two plays later.
However, Hillcrest doomed itself with key mistakes and costly penalties later in the game. Perhaps the biggest example came with 2:54 left, when Brandon Taylor recovered a fumble at midfield, but had his touchdown return — which would have tied the game — negated by two infractions. The Panthers wound up turning the ball over on downs.
The Patriots were more advantageous with their takeaways, as Kendall Jackson scooped up a fumbled lateral near midfield on Hillcrest’s opening possession of the second half and returned it for a touchdown. TJ never trailed after that.
“Big plays happen when you’re consistent with your habits,” Murray said. “We’ve started to figure out how to fight through situations. It’s about trying to change that culture.”