By Buck Ringgold
Photo of Zachary's Eli Holstein courtesy of CrescentCitySports.com
Right before kickoff of its nationally televised game Thursday, Zachary quarterback Eli Holstein was given the green light to return to the field.
Holstein had missed the Broncos' previous game with a shoulder injury and his status remained uncertain going into Zachary's game against Woodlawn-Baton Rouge.
But the Alabama commit returned to play in front of the ESPNU cameras and displayed a precise outing, completing 17-of-20 passes and throwing for two touchdowns.
However, the Broncos were also bolstered by their running game, which accounted for 190 yards and three TDs as Zachary erased a 6-0 first-half deficit to score the game's final 33 points in an eventual 33-6 win at Woodlawn.
Holstein injured his non-throwing left shoulder during the Broncos' lone defeat on Sept. 16, a 24-20 loss to St. Augustine. Initially, he was expected to miss several weeks, but missed just one game, as Zachary drew a bye the following week and then won, 49-14, at Winona, Miss., on Sept. 30.
Thursday, he was able to return, not only to the delight of the Zachary fans but also those watching on ESPNU. The game was billed as a matchup between Southeastern Conference-bound committed quarterbacks - Holstein to Alabama and Woodlawn's Rickie Collins, who is committed to LSU.
"(I was) feeling good enough to play, feeling good enough to play," Holstein said in a postgame interview on ESPNU. "It felt amazing, taking those two weeks off; having a bye week especially helped, but last week it was hard watching those guys go to war without them.
"I respect and love every single one of those guys, especially the senior class. We've played together for three or four years, some of us, and we're really, really close and not being out there with them last week (was tough), but coming out here this week, playing on national TV with everybody, it's a dream come true for a lot of us."
Collins got the upper hand early, breaking a scoreless tie in the second quarter with a TD pass to Jamarcus Sewell from 10 yards out. The PAT was missed, keeping the score 6-0 in the Panthers' favor.
But Zachary (4-1) answered on the very next drive. Holstein completed 5-of-6 passes for 46 yards, but tailback Kameron Thomas finished things off with a 25-yard burst up the middle.
Kellen Conachen then connected on the PAT, giving the Broncos a lead they wouldn't relinquish, 7-6, with 3:29 left until halftime.
Zachary's defense then forced a three-and-out and got the ball back with excellent field position. The Broncos moved it to the Panthers' 8-yard line, where they faced a fourth-and-short.
Holstein left the field, and Ethan Veal - who normally plays linebacker - lined up behind center in a combination Wildcat and jumbo package. Veal took the snap and blasted 8 yards into the end zone, and Conachen's PAT extended the lead to 14-6 with 42 seconds left in the opening half.
Zachary then made it 20-6 on its opening series of the second half, a nine-play, 84-yard drive. Holstein threw his first TD on the night, a quick 7-yard strike to receiver Jalen Wright.
On that drive, Holstein completed all four of his passes for 57 yards, the longest a 30-yard third-down screen pass to tailback Camren Stewart that moved the chains.
The next time Zachary got the ball back, after forcing a Woodlawn punt, the Broncos essentially put the game away for good.
Thomas carried the ball for just the second time, but like the previous time, it resulted in a touchdown. This time, it was a 52-yard burst with 1:28 left in the third, giving the Broncos a commanding 27-6 advantage.
Zachary's final TD came on a fourth-and-long from the Woodlawn 31. Holstein found receiver Tyson George over the middle, and George did the rest, taking the catch-and-run 31 yards to the house with 4:58 remaining.
Holstein completed 17-of-20 passes for 183 yards and two TDs. Receiver Tylon Williams caught eight of those passes for 73 yards, and George had three catches for 40 yards.
Zachary amassed 190 yards on the ground, with Stewart picking up 91 yards on 17 carries. Thomas finished with 83 yards on four carries along with his two TDs.
"(Our offense) finds weak points in what (opposing defenses) do, and I trust the guys around me, especially the guys in front of me," Holstein said. "I know they can protect me, and having all those guys around you helps you settle in pretty quick and you'll be able to make plays."
Collins finished the night completing 14-of-23 passes for 155 yards. He also carried the ball 13 times for 51 yards.
Senior tailback Jayveon Haynes was Woodlawn's top rusher, going for 57 yards on 12 carries. Another senior, Clayton Adams, caught seven of Collins' passes for 79 yards.
But Holstein and Collins weren't the only Division I commits on the field Thursday night.
Zachary senior linebacker Ashley Williams - an Auburn commit - helped spearhead a Bronco defense that held the Panthers to 135 total yards in the second half. Then senior edge rusher AJ Thomas, who is committed to Indiana, sacked Collins on the final play of the first half, the lone sack for the Broncos.
Next up for Zachary is an Oct. 14 date at home with Scotlandville, while Woodlawn (2-4) goes on the road that same night to face Liberty.