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HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL

Branchville looks to upend Eagles, advance to third round

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Branchville running back Philijuan Saldano looks for running room against Bamberg-Ehrhardt earlier this season. Saldano rushed for 219 yards in the Yellow Jackets' playoff opening win over Johnsonville.

Branchville advanced to the second round of the Class A playoffs with a 43-42 victory over Johnsonville. The Yellow Jackets will travel to face C.E. Murray in the second round Friday.

Running backs Philijuan Saldano and Xy’quarius Nimmons led the offense. Saldano finished the game with 219 yards rushing while Nimmons added 114 yards and two touchdowns.

“At halftime (against Johnsonville), we challenged our offensive line to run the football,” Branchville head coach Sandy Dukes said. “They responded. It really took a lot of the pressure off of the passing game. Johnsonville did a good job of taking that away from us in the first half.”

Dukes said his team has been better through the air this year with quarterback Ronnie Nester.

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“(Ronnie) has been great in practice,” Dukes said. “We’ve challenged our receivers this week in practice, I hope our passing gets back to where we want it, but we know we have two good backs that can help us. We don’t want to be one-dimensional.”

Saints coach confident in his team

In their previous five victories, Branchville’s average margin of victory was 36 points. Allendale-Fairfax stayed closest with a 27-point loss. Branchville trailed in the fourth quarter against Johnsonville, but Dukes said he was proud of his team’s response.

“I was really proud of this team’s resolves, the players never gave up,” Dukes said. “Credit goes to our seniors for getting our team to re-focus in the fourth quarter. Kadden Irick makes a big interception to give us the ball back, and we took the momentum.”

Dukes said playing such a close game should give his team confidence heading into Friday’s matchup with the Eagles.

“This was the first game going to the wire,” Dukes said. “Our lone loss to Bamberg-Ehrhardt wasn’t close either. I think it’s good for our guys to have that close-game stress. It didn’t seem to bother them, so I was happy about that.”

C.E. Murray enters the game with a 6-1 record and the Region IV-A championship. They are coached by Region IV-A Coach of the Year Brian Smith.

“We watched their game on film, they got good size, good athletes and are very well coached by (Brian) Smith,” Dukes said.

They also feature Region IV-A Player of the Year quarterback Tyree Prunes. The dual-threat has thrown for 695 yards and seven touchdowns and also leads the team in rushing with 468 yards.

Dukes said Branchville will try to stop Prunes from running the football and force him to beat the Yellow Jackets by throwing.

“On offense, they like to spread the field, we need to stay in our zone on pass defense,” Dukes said. “The quarterback is a real asset to run so we have to keep in the pocket. I would rather him throw the ball that run. Once he does, we have to read our keys.”

Dukes said he expects another close one Friday night.

“C.E. Murray is one of the better teams, if not the best team, we will play this year,” Dukes said. “We just have to limit mistakes and limit penalties. I told our guys to have fun, play fast and play physical. I think if we do those things we’ll have a chance to sneak one out.”

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Branchville travels to face C.E. Murray Friday night, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

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