HILLSBORO – The Vandals are one win closer to making the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Likely to need just five victories to get into the postseason, Vandalia is now at four after knocking off Hillsboro, 27-20, last Friday night.
Nothing is ever assured, but a good chance to get that fifth win will come on Friday night against Southwestern (3-3), which has given up the third-most points (209) in the South Central Conference.
The final two games of the season are against Pana and on the road at Greenville, which is ranked No. 1 in the state.
Thirty-two teams from Class 3A make the playoffs, and with 26 playoff points after beating Hillsboro, the Vandals are currently ranked No. 23 in the 3A pecking order of hopeful teams.
One thing is pretty much assured, though.
If senior Levi Ulmer can keep running the ball like he has been, the Vandals are probably in pretty good shape.
Ulmer carried the ball 25 times for a career-high 186 yards and a score, and his total for the season (654) has already eclipsed his total from all of last season (601).
“Ulmer was just nails tonight,” said coach John Stout.
It wasn’t just Ulmer carrying the offense, which gained 425 yards against Hillsboro, as juniors Tim Ritchey scored twice and Ryan Ambuehl once, and senior Bryan Hosick gained 78 yards on 11 carries.
A lot of those yards came behind good perimeter blocking from the likes of Wade Cowger, Levi Carroll, Quentin Austin, and Daniel Edwards. In addition, Stout said, all the offensive linemen are starting to play better as a unit.
The question mark coming out of the game, however, was Ritchey’s health.
His two scores came in the first quarter and early in the second quarter, but he was knocked out of the game about 4 minutes before halftime with concussion symptoms.
“We’ll see how it progresses, but a head injury isn’t something you want to mess with,” Stout said. “We had some seniors step up.”
Ritchey's status for Friday's game is uncertain.
Hosick took over for Ritchey at quarterback and completed 1-of-3 passes for 19 yards.
That pass came on a 3rd-and-12 and moved the Vandals into Hillsboro territory on the way to the game-winning score, a 3-yard rush by Ulmer with 8:48 left in the game.
Juniors Chase Woolsey and Jeff Lucken sacked Hillsboro quarterback Matt Tomazzolli on a fourth-down play to end the ensuing drive, but the Vandals coughed up the ball on the next play.
Hillsboro moved the ball 46 yards in about 2 minutes to cut Vandalia’s lead to seven at 27-20, with 2:20 left in the game.
“I thought our kids played very well,” Stout said. “We turned it over a couple times and let them get back in the game, but our kids played a whale of a ball game.”
With three turnovers during the game, Stout said he wants to “shore up” the problem before it costs the team a lead and possibly a win.
“It hasn’t been a problem, but it’s come at key times,” Stout said. “With the kind of offense that we run, we might put it on the ground.”
On the final drive of the game, which came after the Vandals recovered an onside kick, players were sure to hold onto the ball tightly, and junior Luke Smith had a 27-yard gain on a 3rd-and-10 play that allowed the team to slow down the pace and run out the clock to win.
The Vandals opened the game playing stifling defense, holding Hillsboro to just 17 yards in the first quarter. Vandalia’s defense has allowed just 75 points this season, the fewest in the conference.
Brady Lynch, Hillsboro’s junior running back who has amassed more than 1,000 rushing yards in the first six games, was held to 12 yards in the first quarter, but he finished the game with 146 yards on the ground and 60 yards on two catches.
“He’s a good football player, and made a couple of good catches,” said Stout, who was pleased that his defense was able to contain him on most rushing plays.
Vandalia’s offense took advantage of the strong defensive play, scoring on an 11-yard run by Ritchey just 3:15 into the game and again on a 5-yard run by Ambuehl on the first play of the second quarter.
“You just look at what the defense gives you,” Stout said of why so many players have scored this season. “We got into a couple of formations that put them in a bind.”
Immediately following Ambuehl’s scamper, however, Hillsboro’s Luke Cerutti dashed 73 yards for a score, but the Vandals got four bruising runs from Ulmer to set up a 2-yard push by Ritchey that gave Vandalia a 21-6 lead it would take to halftime.
Rushing: Ulmer, 25-186, TD; Hosick, 11-78; Ritchey, 7-53, 2 TD; Ambuehl, 6-33, TD; Smith, 4-34.
Passing: Ritchey, 3-5, 22 yards, INT; Hosick, 1-3, 19 yards.
Receiving: Ulmer, 1-19; Austin, 1-12; Hosick, 2-10.
Defense: Lucken, 7 tackles (3 for loss); Blake Mills, 7 tackles; Ambuehl, 6 tackles; Hosick, 6 tackles; Smith, 3 tackles 1 for loss), Woolsey, 3 tackles (1 for loss).
Week 7 Preview
Time and place: Friday at 7 p.m. at Vandalia.
Last time out: Vandalia scored three touchdowns in a span of 6 minutes in the fourth quarter, but Piasa added a score late in the game to get a 31-27 win. Levi Ulmer had two touchdowns in the game.
Trends: The Vandals have lost the past two games against Southwestern, but won in 2006. All-time, the Vandals are just 3-5 against the Birds.
At stake: A win in the game would give the Vandals five for the season, and likely earn them their first playoff berth since 2008.
Last week: Vandalia defeated Hillsboro, 27-20, and Piasa defeated Roxana, 22-10, last Friday night. On the season, Vandalia is 4-2, and Piasa is 3-3.