Undersized Sanders brothers play big role for Jeannette football

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Saturday, August 31, 2019 | 6:59 PM


Jeannette always embraces a small-but-mighty mantra.

Backing down from a challenge, no matter how daunting, is simply not an option. Punch above your weight if you have to, but punch nonetheless.

The Sanders brothers sort of embody that way of thinking. They might be undersized, but they play big for the Jayhawks, who are off to another fast start.

Senior Imani Sanders, junior James Sanders and freshman Noah Sanders are playing key roles for the Jayhawks (2-0, 1-0), ranked No. 2 in WPIAL Class A.

Jeannette was victorious in the first game on the new artificial turf at McKee Stadium on Friday night against Leechburg. The Jayhawks won the Eastern Conference opener 33-6 before a packed crowd.

The Sanders name was called quite a bit, for the second week in a row.

Defending the trio is no small task, especially Imani and James.

Imani is 5-foot-6, 170 pounds and plays running back and defensive back.

James checks in at 5-7, 140 and is a quarterback and cornerback.

Noah, still growing — perhaps — is 5-4, 126.

“Stack them on each other’s shoulders, and you might have a 6-footer,” Jeannette coach Roy Hall joked. “No, they are all very good athletes with good hands. And they’re tough as nails.”

There are six Sanders brothers in all, and, at first glance, it’s easy to tell they are brothers.

Gio Vonne played quarterback for Jeannette a few years ago and is at St. Francis (Pa.), and two younger ones are on their way up the program ladder: 10-year-old Majhi and 8-year-old Dhestin.

“I know coach and the guys like to joke around,” Imani Sanders said. “But I look at it like this: It’s not about how big you are or how athletic you are. It’s about pride. Who wants it more?”

Imani, 17, opened the season with a five-reception, 110-yard performance against East Allegheny and also scored two rushing touchdowns.

The 16-year-old James completed 12 of 20 passes for 186 yards in his starting debut and doubled down with a fantastic effort against Leechburg: 8 of 11, 242 yards, four touchdowns — three to senior Bayley Molter.

“It feels good to be out there with (Imani) in the backfield,” James Sanders said. “We have a good connection, so I feel like whatever we run, me or him can make a play back there.

“We’re all competitive, and we all want to win. It gets heated sometimes because we all want it more.”

Noah, 14, has played special teams, some corner and lined up with Imani as a kick returner. He was a key player on Jeannette’s youth team that played in the National Youth Championship at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, two years ago.

“We’re always real competitive, no matter what,” Noah Sanders said. “We’ll play a board game, like Monopoly or something, and we want to win-win. It’s fun having a lot of brothers at the house.”

Hall also comes from a large family that has produced a number of athletes. He thinks the Sanders trio could be a first for the program.

“For as many Halls as we’ve had come through, we’ve never had three at a time that I can remember,” the coach said.

Hall said James Sanders proved he deserved to be the starting quarterback. Jeannette also had given Roberto Smith Jr. snaps under center. Smith transferred from Greensburg Salem.

“James does a lot of things well,” Hall said. “He can run and throws a pretty good ball.”

Pride frames the face of Imani Sanders when he talks about his siblings.

“It’s a blessing to have a brother on the same team,” Imani Sanders said. “But for us, there’s three of us on the same team. That’s special. We’re all going to get playing time.”

Imani said Gio Vonne Sanders has been a role model and a trendsetter for his brothers.

“We all worked out this summer,” Imani said. “Even my brother came home from college. We were all trying to get better.”

James concurred.

“I grew up watching (Gio Vonne) play. He’s like my role model, and he’s a great player,” James Sanders said.

The Sanders originally are from Greensburg, but they knew about Jeannette’s football tradition.

“I knew about it and that the team was good,” James Sanders said. “So it was a good fit for us to come here and play.”

Imani said he moved to the district in fifth grade – Gio Vonne’s freshman year at Jeannette. They certainly have a bloodline: their cousins include former Jeannette stars Jordan and Kareem Hall and former Greensburg Central Catholic standout Jassan Eubank.

Noah hopes to see his role increase as he aims to crack the Jayhawks’ starting lineup. Until then, he will do all he can to keep his brothers and teammates motivated.

“When James throws a TD pass, I run out and give him a handshake,” Noah Sanders said. “Same thing when Imani runs the ball.”

James Sanders follows a long line of talented, dual-threat quarterbacks, including Robert Kennedy and Seth Howard of late.

“Now it’s my turn,” he said. “I have to step up to the test and show everybody. I try to use my speed and work on my three-step drop.”

Hall said Noah might be the fastest of the Sanders boys.

“They always think they’re the strongest and because I am the youngest they can beat me,” Noah Sanders said. “We get that toughness from my dad (James Sanders).”

Bill Beckner Jr. is a Tribune-Review Staff Writer. You can contact Bill by email at bbeckner@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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