When you have a guy who teammates and fans refer to as “Big Ern” sometimes you just have to give the big fella the rock and let him run over some dudes.

Senior linebacker and running back Ernest Howard had to come in for a play at quarterback in the fourth quarter after Pleasantville’s freshman signal-caller, Marlon Leslie, had his helmet knocked off on a running play, and all Howard did was start shredding the Salem defense for big gains. Greyhounds coach Chris Sacco knows enough to keep giving the ball to a 205-pound senior when he’s feeling it, and a few minute later Howard capped off the drive with a 17-yard touchdown run that iced a 27-18 season-opening victory for host Pleasantville.

“M.J.’s helmet came off, so we had to put Ernest at quarterback for at least one play, and that’s our wildcat package. He broke a big run so I said just stay with it because I thought their D-line was getting a little tired and our line was leaning on him. We had two backs in the backfield who can run, he’s a senior and a D-I player, so you have to ride him when you can,” Sacco said.

“My number was called and I knew we had to seal the game fast, so I was just thinking I had to make a play. They were hanging around for a long time, so we just had to make a play fast, and I just stepped up, God willing. We went 0-1 for a couple years back-to-back, so to get out to a 1-0 start going into Haddonfield, we’re juiced up about that. We had a lot of guys going down, but we just kept on fighting and that’s what I like,” Howard said. “We have a couple returners on the line from last year, but we have a lot of young guys and they definitely stepped up big in this game, holding their blocks and contributing for us.”

Salem jumped out to an early 12-0 lead, but Leslie cut the deficit in half with his first varsity touchdown late in the first quarter, then Keon Henry scored on a 61-yard punt return and Zahir Washington’s point after gave Pleasantville a 13-12 lead heading into halftime. The Greyhounds made it 19-12 in the third when Leslie hooked up with Washington for a 21-yard touchdown pass over the middle on a fourth-down play. Salem sliced the lead to 19-18 when Kaciir Street barreled in from a yard out after Pleasantville fumbled a punt on its own 1-yard line late in the third quarter, but early in the fourth the Rams turned the ball over on downs and Howard took over.

“I was a little concerned, I’m not going  to lie, how we would respond (after trailing 12-0), but to go down on offense and get a quick score and get a quick special teams play, I think that just sparked everything,” Sacco said. “Early on, we took their best shot and we were up 13-12 at half, we got the ball (in the third quarter) and scored. We had a mishap there in the third on the punt and kind of gave them that one, but they still battled. We’re going to need to fight through adversity like that if we’re going to be a contender in the playoffs.”

Jaquan Howard — no relation to Ernest Howard — had a big game for the Greyhounds, piling up more than 100 yards rushing, and Leslie played well in the first varsity action of his career, not turning the ball over, scoring a touchdown and throwing for another.

“I’m happy he’s playing right now,” Ernest Howard said of Leslie. “He’s starting early, so we just wanted him to get off to a good start. He had a little bit of butterflies coming in, but he was ready to play.”

“We scored 13 points quickly and got the lead back, and I felt like from that point our offense was able to open back up,” Sacco said. “We did some inexperienced things early on that we’re going to get better at. I’ve been saying, if we can win early on and stay healthy, this team is only going to get better. We expect to be a lot better next week and for the game to be a lot cleaner, then we get a bye and we can fine-tune everything. I think this team is just going to continue to get better. Our game plan coming in was (Salem) was going to come out swinging and we have to take it. We did, we fought back, and we started to see some wear-and-tear on them a little bit. We didn’t have as many guys going both ways so we tried to use that to our advantage, and we felt if we could take this lead into the fourth quarter we could pull away, and we did.”

What’s next? Pleasantville travels to Haddonfield on Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. Salem hosts Cedar Creek on Sept. 7 at noon.

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