BRANFORD — Branford High School coaches didn’t have any problem getting Junior Cress fired up for Friday nights.
Rather, the chore was to keep the senior defensive leader from going too far.
“Junior was coachable during practice, but one of his struggles was that he was ultra competitive on Friday nights; he loves to compete,” Branford High coach Tim Clark said. “He had to work at controlling his emotions and being collected and coachable during games. Sometimes competitors overheat and learning to control that was something he worked hard at.”
Cress, too, noted that sometimes those emotions and competitiveness worked against him.
“Sometimes my emotions can get the best of me, and I think coach took me out of every football game this year where I sat for four or five minutes,” he said. “There were a few times where I got chewed out pretty bad.
“I got more control toward the end of the season, and I learned how to play with emotion more secretly.”
But that competitive nature and emotional play also benefited the Buccaneers greatly and earned Cress the All-Suwannee Valley Defensive Player of the Year honor.
Switching to linebacker from the defensive line, Cress led the Bucs with 52 tackles and tied with Bodhi White for the team high with 34 solo stops.
That nose for the football comes from his grandfather, who Cress credited for helping to inspire his defensive style of play. Clark likened that play to that of a “wrecking ball.”
“He was a big fan of Lawrence Taylor, and he use to show me video of him,” Cress said. “He’d say, ‘You need to play like that guy.’ LT was a beast, whenever I was on the football field, I was like, ‘That’s how I’m going to play.’ I think it helped.
“I liked to play like Lawrence Taylor, just the way he played with aggression; kinda like I play. He was always mad when he hit the football field.”
Off the field, though, Cress dedicated his time to his craft. Making the transition from lineman to linebacker, he made sure to study film as a way to get ahead.
“I used that to play,” he said, adding that making and calling plays and knowing where players are lined up were the best aspects of his game. “I’ve played everything on the defensive line, middle and outside linebacker. I knew how to play safety, but only played once in a game, when coach thought they were going to throw it long, and corner once in a game, when I got the interception. I knew, pretty much, how to play everything on defense, and all the assignments, all the basic stuff.”
Clark, too, saw Cress tap into his wide array of potential. The two-way standout continued to grow throughout his career, in which he has earned All-Area accolades on both sides of the ball each of the past two years.
“Junior improved throughout his career by growing in confidence in what he could do,” Clark said. “He grew more physical and more consistent as a tackler. I saw him make more and more plays where he didn’t hesitate and just trusted his angle and made an aggressive move. That comes with an experienced player.
“He matched well with (Dakota) Hamm, especially when we put both of them at linebacker. He also played well with Brock Lewis inside, who is a smaller linebacker but a more cerebral player with good technique. Junior being more of a wrecking ball complimented that when they were in together.
“Junior was one of the top defensive players on our team and in our region for sure. He played multiple positions throughout his career and has always produced.”
That production included his first career interception this year. And it was what Clark termed his best play. It also demonstrated his versatility and playmaking ability.
“Maclay had a very good player at wide receiver and down near the goal line we noticed they lined him up wider than normal and we anticipated a jump ball,” Clark said. “Junior was very good in those situations so we called a quick switch and he and Clay Williams swapped spots for a play, and it was Junior’s only snap at corner and he picked it off.”
For Cress, though, one of his top highlights came on the other side of the ball. Hauling in 19 receptions for 404 yards and four touchdowns, Cress showed that ability in the Bucs’ playoff loss at Hilliard.
Cress caught two passes in a last-minute drive, including a touchdown on a wheel route that forced overtime with just seconds remaining.
“I caught one for 20 yards that put us past the 50, and the wheel route was from inside the 20,” Cress said. “When coach Clark called the wheel route; ‘yeah, this is going to me.’”
It again was just another example of Cress showing off his playmaking ability. An ability that Clark saw long ago.
“I saw Junior’s potential early on, when he was in the ninth grade, but he really made a big jump after his sophomore season,” Clark said. “His best attributes offensively were his size and hands. He was a matchup problem at 215-220 pounds running routes on DBs. Defensively his best attribute was his physicality.”