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When the postseason - and all the pressure that comes along with it - is just around the corner, even 7-1 teams can use a little boost of confidence.
And fortunately, the Vandalia football team got a much-needed shot of self-esteem Friday at Mark Greer Field with a 33-18 "Senior Night" win over Carlinville.
Much like it did last year, the Vandals entered Week 9 in great shape record-wise, but struggling offensively.
Unlike last year, coach John Stout's team emerged from its offensive funk just in time to enter postseason play with a much better mindset.
The Vandals (8-1) are riding high as they prepare to host Friday's 7 p.m. first-round Class 3A playoff game against Flora (7-2), coming off a victory in which they piled up 306 yards of total offense, scoring 27 unanswered points at one juncture.
"This year, we're kind of on an up-tick going in," said Stout, whose team closed the 2007 season on in discouraging fashion by getting shut out at Carlinville; the Vandals subsequently suffered a first-round loss to West Frankfort in the playoffs.
"Last year, we got shut out by Carlinville and went into our playoff game as flat as a pancake," Stout said.
The key to the Vandals taking the first step toward ensuring history does not repeat itself was two-fold.
First, Stout and his staff gave the offense a pep talk after the Vandals watched their production taper off from its season average of well over 300 yards per game to just 172 ypg in Weeks 7 and 8.
"After last week (in a 7-0 win over Staunton), the kids thought maybe our offense wasn't as good as they thought," Stout said. "But we told them all week, 'We've got a good offense.'"
The Vandals' coaching staff wasn't just blowing hot air, either, as they backed up their words with proof.
"We posted the point totals from the last 15-20 years (on the bulletin board), and our guys saw that just a couple Vandalia teams have had more points than they do," Stout said.
It also helped that the Vandals started executing a handful of new passing plays implemented by Stout in Week 7 to keep the opposition honest.
The Vandals spread the field and used multiple receivers on several occasions, as quarterback Drew Bell connected on 6 of 8 attempts for 98 yards, firing a pair of touchdown strikes to fellow senior Jake Etcheson.
Coupled with the Vandals' usual strong running attack - also led by Etcheson - the Vandals managed to keep the Cavaliers guessing.
"I think you started to see that some of the things we've been trying to do (offensively) the past few weeks are starting to gel, and that's just answers to some of the things defenses have been trying to do on us," said Stout of spreading the field and having an effective passing game.
"It just gets teams out of that eight-man front, because with four vertical routes on them, they just don't have enough people to cover them."
Thanks to their balanced offense, the Vandals were able to make an early 12-6 lead a distant memory by halftime, scoring on their final four possessions before intermission to take a commanding 33-12 lead into the locker room.
Etcheson gave early indications that the Vandals were poised to bust out of their offensive funk, scoring from 65 yards out on sweep on VCHS's second play from scrimmage.
Carlinville (4-5) wasted little time answering, however, as Josh Rives returned the ensuing kickoff 78 yards for a score.
Then, after the Vandals went three-and-out, the Cavs took advantage of a short field to take a short-lived lead.
After starting their drive at the VCHS 43-yard line, Zac Dixon found a wide-open Dane Boente for a 23-yard touchdown pass on 4th-and-6, giving Carlinville a 12-6 lead midway through the first quarter.
The Vandals answered with a fourth-down touchdown pass of their own, however, as Bell found Etcheson cutting across the middle of the field for a 42-yard score. Bell followed with a PAT kick that gave the Vandals a 13-12 lead they would not relinquish.
Sophomore sparkplug Cory Bunker then showed off his considerable skills after Carlinville's ensuing drive stalled, returning a punt in scintillating fashion to the Cavs' 1-yard line. Etcheson scored two plays later by willing his way through a slew of Carlinville defenders, and Bell followed with another PAT.
Bunker added a pair of big runs on the Vandals' next drive to help VCHS move deep into Cavalier territory, and Bell and Etcheson were able to hook up again for a TD - this time from 14 yards out - as Etcheson's momentum carried him into the end zone following a leaping grab for his fourth score of the half.
Vandalia capped the first half with a 48-yard drive in the final three minutes, as Nick Slagle scored on a 1-yard plunge after Devin Cook recovered a Bunker fumble near the goal line.
While the Vandals' offense was kicking things into full gear, VCHS's defense was recovering from its early hiccup, as Carlinville failed to get past midfield on its final four possessions of the first half.
The Vandals' 'D' continued to dominate in the second half, helping Vandalia cruise to victory, despite getting shut out over the final 24 minutes.
"Give Carlinville credit," Stout said. "They made some adjustments at halftime... But I thought our defense really played well in the second half."
Carlinville finished with just 130 yards of total offense, as VCHS's defense finished the regular season allowing just 8.1 points per game. That latter stat is actually a bit inflated, as two of the nine touchdowns the Vandals allowed this year were scored on kickoff returns, while another was surrendered on a lost fumble.
Etcheson piled up 145 yards of total offense, rushing for 89 yards on 12 carries, while making two catches for 56 yards.
All told, Stout couldn't have been much happier with the effort - or his team's season as a whole, for that matter.
"Our kids came out and did a great job tonight," Stout said. "And, save for a couple plays in that Greenville game, we might be looking at 9-0. We're just happy with kids right now."
The Vandals' 8-1 regular-season record is the program's best since 1996, when VCHS went 9-0.