The Vandalia football team got where it wanted to go this year by running the football well and taking care of the ball.
In their seven victories, the Vandals had just seven turnovers, while averaging nearly 250 yards on the ground.
But ironically, once the Vandals reached their intended destination – playing on their home field in the opening round of the playoffs for the first time since 1997 – it was their inability to do both of these things that ultimately led to its premature exit from the postseason.
The Vandals rushed for just 116 yards and turned the ball over five times against West Frankfort Saturday at Mark Greer Field. The Redbirds potent offense took full advantage of the latter, pulling away late for a 45-26 win.
‘That did hurt us,’ said Vandals coach John Stout of the turnovers. ‘They’ve got too many weapons to stop – especially when you give them the short field.’
West Frankfort parlayed four of Vandalia’s giveaways into touchdown drives, as the Redbirds were set up with a short field on three of those occasions and ran in an interception for a touchdown on the other.
Combined with Week 9’s five turnovers against Carlinville, the Vandals committed 10 of their 20 turnovers for the year in the final two games of the season, both losses.
‘That’s something we didn’t do earlier in the year,’ said Stout. ‘We’ve done that later in the year, and it’s come back to bite us.’
The giveaways led to a deceptive final score Saturday, as Vandalia was still within striking distance for a majority of the game.
Vandalia trailed by just three points, 17-14, and had the football to start the second half. But a fumble quickly set West Frankfort up at the Vandals’ 30-yard line. Two plays later, Redbirds quarterback Matt Brown escaped a near sack to find Kendrick Simelton for a 30-yard TD strike.
The Vandals showed their resiliency by bouncing back with a score of their own, as Drew Bell’s first catch of the season – a leaping snare of a deep heave by Shroyer – went for 49 yards, setting the Vandals up at the Redbirds’ 6.
Shroyer scored from 1 yard out two plays later, as Vandalia cut West Frankfort’s lead to just four, 24-20.
West Frankfort embarked on a long drive directly thereafter, but the Vandals seemingly seized the momentum when Jake Etcheson stuffed stud running back Kevin Uhls on 4th-and-3 from the Vandals’ 3-yard line.
Vandalia went 3-and-out after taking over on downs, however, as a potential first-down catch was dropped.
‘We had the first down on the hitch (route), but we didn’t make the catch,’ Stout said. ‘That was big, I thought.’
West Frankfort responded with an impressive 65-yard march, as it needed just four plays to reach paydirt. Uhls set the Redbirds up by bowling his way through Vandalia’s line for a 49-yard gain. Brown then scored from 7 yards out on a perfectly executed fake handoff.
Vandalia still had hope with over 11 minutes remaining in the game, but Simelton picked off a Shroyer pass on the first play of the Vandals next drive, returning it 40 yards for morale-crushing touchdown.
‘That turned the ballgame right there,’ Stout said.
Uhls and Brown led the Redbirds to another touchdown drive after a Vandalia turnover midway through the fourth quarter, blowing the game wide open.
Led by that duo, the Redbirds offense was as good – and balanced – as advertised.
Brown finished with 248 yards on 16-for-23 passing, throwing three TD strikes while running for another. Brown showed the ability to throw the short screen pass and the deep ball, but it was his ability to avoid contact that impressed Stout the most.
‘I thought their quarterback was very elusive,’ Stout said. ‘The quarterbacks we’ve seen, when we’ve had them out there on the edge, we’ve chased them down. We couldn’t chase him down today.
Simelton was also a difficult matchup, as the athletic 6-foot-1 wideout had five catches for 115 yards.
‘They just out-athleted us at a couple positions,’ Stout said.
Uhls ran for 176 of the Redbirds’ 203 yards on 19 carries. He has rushed for 100 yards or more in all seven West Frankfort victories this year.
‘Uhls is a great back,’ Stout said. ‘A couple times there he just made us miss. Even Greenville’s backs didn’t make us miss like that.’
The Redbirds’ 451 yards of total offense was the most the Vandals have allowed this year.
‘We just couldn’t stop them in the second half,’ Stout said. ‘That had too many weapons for us.’
The Vandals were also fairly balanced between the running and passing game, but not necessarily by design. With its running game stalling for a third straight week, Vandalia went to the air a season-high 24 times.
That strategy proved effective in the first half, as Shroyer hooked up with Jake Etcheson for TD strikes of 12 and 24 yards to counter a pair of early West Frankfort TDs.
But Vandalia missed out on a pair of other early opportunities, as it started drives in Redbirds territory twice in the first half, cashing in just once on Etcheson’s second TD catch.
‘That’s something we had done all year, starting drives around midfield,’ Stout said. ‘I think we had it in there three times and we punched it in once. I think if we could have gotten another in there and not given them one, it might have been a different story.’
West Frankfort managed to take a three-point lead into halftime on a 27-yard field goal by Jared Moake on the final play of the half.
Moake was a thorn in Vandalia’s side all day, as he was perfect on extra-point attempts in addition to hauling in three passes for 64 yards while picking off two Vandalia passes.
The playoff victory was the Redbirds (7-3) first since 1986, and West Frankfort will now host Columbia at 2 p.m. Saturday.
The Vandals (7-3) saw an otherwise outstanding season come to an unfortunate end.
It was a particularly difficult conclusion for the Vandals 12 seniors – Shroyer, Devan Matthews, Adam Bowling, Cody Pyle, Zach Burden, Doug Slagle, Curtis Hemminghaus, Joe Patterson, Josh Braman, Nick DePaolo, Rick Daisley and Nate Stone.
But Stout commended the group for setting the tone in the weight room over the summer and getting the program to a place it hadn’t been in a decade.
‘They’re disappointed,’ Stout said. ‘But you look from where we started last year, winning our last four just to get in. (Then) we got up into 4A and got blasted by Mascoutah.
‘We wanted that home game, because we knew we had a better chance to get into the round of eight that way. That was our goal – to win a couple playoff games. We took those steps. We didn’t win today, but we took the steps to do that.’
Matthews finished with 39 yards rushing on 13 carries, finishing the year as the Vandals leading rusher with 750 yards. Bowling and Slagle added 33 and 21 yards on the ground, respectively.
Shroyer threw for a season-high 164 yards. He threw his third touchdown pass of the day – a 9-yard strike to Burden – late in the fourth quarter, and ran for another TD. Burden hauled in two passes for 26 yards.
But West Frankfort simply had too much firepower, proving to be much better than its No. 11 seed would indicate.
‘It’s hard to win in the playoffs, because the seeds don’t mean anything,’ Stout said. ‘West Frankfort is not an 11 seed. They got beat by Anna-Jonesboro, Carterville and Massac (County) – they are not an 11 seed. We were unfortunate to get them the first round.
‘We’ve got to position ourselves better next year to get a better home game and get the door broken down.’
One positive from Saturday’s game was the fine play of a number of returning Vandals.
Bell, who will likely be the starting quarterback next year, finished with 77 yards on two catches, and he nearly hauled in another long pass.
Whightsil reached double figures in tackles once again, and wound up leading the team with over 100 takedowns. The versatile junior also had 30 yards of total offense.
Etcheson finished with 36 yards on two catches, scoring his fifth and six touchdowns of the year.
All three figure to be key components to next year’s team on both sides of the ball. The only question is where they’ll play.
‘I think they’re pretty versatile,’ Stout said. ‘We used Mitch in the backfield, as a tight end and a wideout. I think Etcheson is similar. And Drew looks like he’s going to be our quarterback next year.
‘They are just very versatile guys and it showed today. They stepped up in a big game and got the job done.’