The start of July brought a day that the Cheetah coaches had been eyeing since the schedules were announced – it would be the first time the Cheetahs would meet the Solent Seahawks, who always bring a well-coached and talented team ready to play. As the year went on, both teams continued to win, and the fixture gained even more importance. Saturday was going to be a big test – not only would the Cheetahs face the Seahawks, but also familiar foes Swindon Storm and Poole Dolphins, both of whom had improved since they were last seen.
The big game between the 6-0 Cheetahs and the 6-0 Seahawks was up first. The Cheetahs won the toss and took the ball, looking to make a statement early with a quick score. Second year quarterback Sonny Hack saw his first pass slip through some nervous hands and the ensuing run was quickly stuffed, but the next play was a nifty run by Charlie Barnett to put the Cheetahs on the board. The conversion was successful, putting Herts up early. The defence took the field to try and stop the Seahawks from answering and proved themselves up to the task. Defensive tackle Jack Byrne was quickly in the backfield on the first play to take the quarterback down for a sack. The next three plays were much of the same, with the defence applying unrelenting pressure to force the Seahawks to give the ball back to the high-scoring Cheetah offense.
It didn’t take long for the Cheetahs to strike – a deep ball on the first play from Hack to running back Olly Murat who got behind the Seahawk defence to make a fingertip catch for six points. The conversion unfortunately wasn’t good, but ten plays into the game and the Cheetahs were up 13-0. The rest of the first half was more of the same – pressure from Byrne for more sacks and one safety, tight coverage from rookies Joe Parton, Jack Wiseman and Max Nissim shut down the Solent offense, recovering a fumble on the goal line and not allowing the Seahawks a first down. Meanwhile, the offense didn’t let up, with scores coming from fast and furious – short passes from Hack to Barnett and Ewan Macdonald plus another deep ball from Hack to Murat. The first half ended with the Cheetahs up 37-0 and the Solent team wondering what happened. The second half saw adjustments from the Seahawk side-line – they had to double-team Byrne and defensive scheme changes slowed the Cheetahs down, but not before another deep ball from Hack to Macdonald. The home squad managed to put two scores on the board, but it was too late and the game ended 44-13. Game MVP honours went to Hack (179 passing yards and 5 touchdowns) and Byrne (2 sacks, 1 safety and 1 forced fumble).
Next up were the Poole Dolphins. Although they were unable to put up much of a fight at the Hertfordshire home tourney in June, they had shown great improvement in the weeks since and the Cheetahs needed to be ready. The game started with the Cheetahs on D – and their success carried over from the first game to shut the Dolphins down, forcing the Dolphins back to their own goal line. The Herts offense, looked to start off quickly once more, took the first play all the way to the end zone on another long run by Charlie Barnett. The conversion failed and the ball went back to the Dolphins. This time, some of their newer players made big contributions, allowing them to score on a broken play after a good six-play drive. The game was now tied at 6. Unfortunately, the next offensive sequence ended poorly for the Cheetahs, with a fumbled snap recovered by Poole on the Cheetah 10-yard line. The defence came up big, allowing just a few yards, with Joe Parton the star, with two tackles and a near interception.
The Cheetah offense took over after that scare and regained their confidence with a four-play drive ending with a Hack deep ball to a wide-open Taylor Bloor. The conversion was no good and the score stood at 12-6 with the half winding down. There were a few plays left and the next sequence showed what the combination of a shut-down defence and a quick-strike offense can do. The Dolphins took over and after a pair of rushes, Jack Wiseman jumped in front of a pass for the interception. The next play was a 29-yard strike from Hack to Ewan Macdonald. The following Poole play was intercepted by Parton on the Poole 12, which allowed for another Barnett run for six points on the next snap. This time the conversion was a success and the dust finally settled on the half with the Cheetahs up 25-6. The Herts offense ran just ten plays in the half, scoring four touchdowns.
The Hertfordshire squad took over to start the half and slowed the game down with short passes and strong runs, before back Olly Murat broke through the Poole D with a nifty hip shake for a 26-yard scamper into the end zone. The Poole possession ended after two plays when an errant snap caused the quarterback to have to give up a safety to Byrne. The ensuing Cheetah drive ate up more clock and ended in another touchdown – this one a short pass from Hack to Barnett. The Dolphins were able to break a long run when they got the ball back, but it wasn’t enough. The game ended in a 39-12 Cheetah victory. Game MVPs were Charlie Barnett (3 TDs) and Jack Wiseman (INT and 3 tackles).
The temperatures were in the mid to upper 20s and the sun was relentless, but the Herts squad had to play their third game of the tournament for the first time. The coaches’ insistence on cardio drills in training showed – the next opponent, Swindon, was worn down after a tough one-point defeat to Solent. The Cheetahs showed little mercy from the start – with a long run from Taylor Bloor outpacing a clearly exhausted Storm defence. Jack Byrne and his defensive teammates squashed the Swindon offence allowing for just a four-yard gain. The next offensive possession for the Cheetahs was all run – four strong carries from Alex Niciou ended with a TD and another conversion – Cheetahs up 14-0. The Storm could do nothing with their possession – Byrne, Joe Parton and Jack Wiseman limiting them to just a handful of yards. Sonny Hack found center Adam Headley on a dump-off pass on the first snap and Headley did the rest, running away from the Swindon defenders to score. On their next possession, the Storm was able to manage a first down on a long drive before the ball carrier was taken down by a streaking Parton. They were unable to score, however, giving the ball back to Herts. Two plays later, Olly Murat broke a long run for another touchdown. The half ended with the Storm O knocking on the Cheetah end-zone but falling short due to great Jack Wiseman tackle. Score 28-0 to Herts.
The second half was played slowly to make sure all players didn’t suffer in the heat. The Swindon players wanted to play, but there were concerns with hydration and injuries. The Storm offense was unable to move the ball, with Max Nissim single-handedly stopping their attack. The Cheetah offense took the ball to the end zone again, with Niciou running 15 yards untouched into the end-zone. Nissim continued his second half dominance (with a Byrne sack thrown in) with the next Storm possession, who gave the ball up after four downs. Four runs by the Herts saw Ivan Ginelli get his first carries of the year, ending with a 6-yard TD run. The game ends – a Cheetah 41-0 victory. Co-MVPs on offense were Adam Headley (whose play at center impressed all day) and Alex Niciou (98 yards, 2 TDs). On D, honours went to Joe Parton and Max Nissim, who lead the D to the clean sheet.
The Cheetahs finish the day with a record of 9-0, one of just four teams in the country yet to suffer a defeat. They are two games clear in the Southern Division with just one tournament of three games left. The next tournament is to be hosted by the Berkshire Renegades, with the Solent Seahawks looking for payback. The Salisbury City Marauders, who the Cheetahs haven’t played, round out the bill.