Vandals clinch program-record 3rd straight playoff berth

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By Seth Whitehead

It took the Vandalia football program 59 years to get to where it finds itself following Friday's 20-15 win over Pana - in the playoffs for a third straight season.

So it should come to no surprise that the final step in a journey spanning six decades was not an easy one.

Pana frustrated the Vandals offensively, holding VCHS to a season-low 181 yards of total offense while forcing three lost fumbles.

And the Panthers used a pair of fluky big plays to stay in the ballgame, despite a dominating effort by the Vandalia defense.

But, in the end, it wasn't enough to keep the Vandals from making history, as they found a way to do what no VCHS team has done before.

"This was kind of like the Staunton game last year," said a stressed - but elated - coach John Stout, refering to a game the Vandals won, 7-6. "We just kind of gutted it out and did what we had to do, made the plays when we had to and came out with a win.

"Pana's got a heck of a ballclub. Man, they're tough up front and took us out of what we normally like to do. They've got some athletes and some football players."

The Vandals enjoyed the lead from the 8:29 mark of the second quarter on - but it was never a comfortable one.

A Jake Etcheson interception set up a Cory Bunker 10-yard touchdown run and a Drew Bell PAT, giving the Vandals a 13-9 lead following a first quarter that could be described as shaky at best.

Vandalia fumbled the ball away deep in their own territory on their first two possessions, but Pana came away with just three points on the gaffs - and those came on a field goal that appeared wide left.

After punting the ball away on their next possession, the Vandals finally appeared to find their groove in the closing minutes of the quarter, as Tim Dunahee recovered a Pana fumble to put the Vandals in business at the Panthers' 47-yard line.

The Vandals quickly moved the ball inside the Pana 30 before the drive stalled, bringing up 4th-and-12 from the 27.

Stout elected to go for the first down rather than send Bell in for a long field goal, and the gamble paid off, as Mitch Whightsil pulled in a wobbly Bell pass in the middle of the field for a first and goal from the 7.

Echeson followed with a 7-yard TD plunge on a sweep.

But just when the Vandals appeared to have seized the momentum, Pana reached into its bag of tricks on the ensuing kickoff.

After fielding the kickoff, five Pana players converged in the middle of the field on a "starburst" play, leaving the Vandals confused as to who had the ball.

By the time it became evident Xavier Rice had the ball, he was already racing up the right sideline for a touchdown that gave the Panthers a 9-6 lead with 24 seconds left in the quarter.

"You don't see that very often," said Stout of the trick play. "We hadn't seen them do that, and we had three game films on them. ... I was faked out. It was a good play on their part and got them back in the game."

The Vandals had to punt again on their next possession, but Caleb Walton forced Pana quarterback Michael Lesser into a rushed pass with excellent pressure on the second play of the Panthers' next possession, setting up Etcheson's interception and the Vandals' go-ahead score.

The Vandals enjoyed a 13-9 lead at halftime, but couldn't get much going in the third quarter until Cody McGee gave his team a much-needed jolt with a 68-yard touchdown run.

Much like his key touchdown run the week prior at Litchfield, the diminuative senior fullback appeared out of nowhere from a sea of bodies at the line of scrimmage before exploding past a score of overmatched defenders on his way to the end zone.

"Again, you see what kind of speed he has, because he just ran away from those people," Stout said. "When he first came out of the pack, I didn't think he was going to go (all the way). But he just kept gaining and increasing his distance between them as he went.

"He's been the home-run hitter the past couple weeks."

Stout credited assistant coach Brian Buscher for the play call.

"We'd been running the sweep so much, because early in the game they were just blitzing everybody," Stout said. "Finally, coach Buscher said, 'Hey, they've adjusted to the sweep, I think midline will finally go. So I came back to it the first play, and McGee just popped in through there."

McGee's TD turned out to not only be the most exciting of the game for the Vandals, but the most important.

The Vandals' offense completely stalled the rest of the way, and things got very interesting after Lesser hooked up with David Maziarz for a 64-yard touchdown pass with 6:10 to go, as Lesser somehow scrambled to avoid a sack.

"We probably should have had him sacked when he was scrambling around," Stout said. "But you have to give him credit for avoiding the rush and making the throw."

It was one of the few defensive mistakes the Vandals made, however, as VCHS held Pana to a grand total of 1 yard of total offense during its final two possessions.

Overall, Pana had just 155 yards of total offense.

"The defense was great," Stout said.

The Vandals were extremely aggressive defensively all night, recording seven tackles for a loss.

Walton led the way with 10 tackles overall and two hits for a loss, while Will Cowger had eight tackles and a morale-crushing sack on the Panthers' final possession.

Etcheson ended the game with his second interception.

"I thought our pass rush did great - especially down there on that last series," Stout said. "We want to be aggressive. Those guys did a great job, I thought."

Vandalia is now assured of playing in Week 10 for a third straight season for the first time in program history, even though Stout says some of his players haven't fully appreciated the accomplishment yet.

"I told the kids at our walkthrough today, 'I don't think you realize how significant this is,'" Stout said. "They will later on, but I don't think they do now. In all the years we've had football, we've never had three playoff teams in a row."