The physical toll was evident.
Blood seeped from Vandalia senior Jake Etcheson’s right arm as the final seconds ticked away Friday night at Mark Greer Field.
And classmate Mitch Whightsil limped gingerly on his injured ankle as the Vandals progressed to midfield for their postgame huddle.
The emotional toll following the Vandals’ 14-7 loss to Greenville was even more transparent, however, as sophomore Cory Bunker clutched his facemask in despair as he stared at the ground, while his teammates’ eyes welled up with tears following Vandalia’s first loss of the season.
The Vandals were hurting – and they had plenty of reasons to be doing so.
They had just lost to their biggest SCC-East rival for the ninth-straight time, after all.
And the Comets were making sure to let them know about it, celebrating wildly on the sideline along with their band and at least half of Greenville following their defacto ‘homecoming’ victory (the team is playing an all-road slate this year due to unfinished work on their home field).
It certainly didn’t help that the Vandals had a legitimate shot to beat the mighty Comets – a sharp contrast to their prior five meetings, a stretch in which Greenville had won by an average of 26 points.
But the toughest pill to swallow was the fact that the Vandals could have knocked off the fifth-ranked team in Class 3A by eliminating a handful of crucial mistakes in the second half.
‘I told them in the huddle after the game that in a tight game, the team that makes the fewest mistakes usually wins,’ said Vandals coach John Stout, who watched a turnover and costly penalty come back to bite his team on what would prove to be the game-winning fourth-quarter drive.
‘They definitely made the fewest. We didn’t make many, but we made some mistakes in key times. That turned the game in their favor.’
The game was a deadlock on the stat sheet and the scoreboard for what seemed like an eternity before the Comets’ Brian Doll bullied his way into the end zone from 7 yards out with just under four minutes remaining.
Doll’s TD run to broke up a 7-7 tie that had stood since the closing minute of the first half, completing a 58-yard drive that was kept alive by a pair of crucial fourth-down conversions.
The first came on 4th and short from the 50, as Vandalia was whistled for an offside penalty. The second came on 4th and 7 from the Vandals’ 20, as Doll took an option pitch from quarterback Todd Eaton and bulled his way through a pair of VCHS defenders inside the Vandals’ 10-yard line.
Flush with momentum, Doll found paydirt on the very next play.
The Vandals still had plenty of time to answer, but were unable to do so, coming up empty on four pass attempts from their own 45 before Greenville took over on downs and ran the clock out.
Greenville’s ability to convert on fourth down proved to be the difference in the second half – and the Vandals’ inability to do so proved to be an ironic twist considering how VCHS went about tying the game at the end of the first half.
After surviving a rough start, the Vandals suddenly started moving the ball during a clock-eating drive early in the second quarter.
The drive stalled inside the Comets’ 10-yard line, however, and Greenville appeared on the verge of carrying a lead into halftime as the Vandals were facing a 4th-and-goal from the 3.
The Vandals could have easily settled for a short field goal, but decided to go for the end zone instead.
The gamble paid off when quarterback Drew Bell dove into the end zone on a roll out and tied the game seconds later with a PAT.
Vandalia seemed poised to parlay that momentum into a go-ahead score on their first drive of the second half, but a promising 41-yard march stalled at the Greenville 25 when Jake Etcheson was stopped inches short of a first down on a 4th and 5 carry.
‘We got stopped about a foot short of a first down,’ Stout said. ‘If we get that, I think the worst we would have got was three out of it, because Drew is pretty consistent on field goals inside the 20 (yard line). But they rose to the occasion and stopped us short of it.’
The Vandals would go on to dominate time of possession for the remainder of the third quarter, as Greenville had possession less than two minutes.
But after the teams exchanged lost fumbles, another promising Vandals drive stalled at the Comets’ 36, as VCHS came up short on another fourth-down conversion.
Bell was then intercepted on 3rd and 20 with 8:45 remaining in fourth, and the Comets capitalized.
Doll, who ran for a game-high 102 yards, got the Comets going with an 18-yard run to midfield on 3rd and 18.
‘That to me was the key play,’ Stout said.
The run left Greenville just short of a first down, but the Vandals were whistled for being offsides, giving the Comets a fresh set of downs.
They scored eight plays later.
Greenville struck quickly in the first quarter, mixing up its offensive looks by employing a Vandals-esque Wing-T offense during a successful second possession that ended with a 7-yard Doll TD run.
The Vandals doubled their season punt total in the first quarter alone (2) before settling in nicely in the second quarter.
‘We didn’t really do anything a whole lot different,’ Stout said. ‘We just decided to step up and play.
‘We played a lot more sound and kind of got calmed down a little bit. Our kids were a little jacked up.’
Etcheson had slew of big runs on sweep plays during Vandalia’s lone touchdown drive, and the senior finished with 88 yards rushing on 15 carries.
The Vandals managed just 188 yards of total offense, however, and their all-around attack was no doubt affected by Whightsil’s injury near the end of the first half.
The all-SCC receiver/running back twisted his ankle carrying the ball on the Vandals’ last possession of the first half, and he was severely limited in the second half.
‘He twisted his ankle running the midline-option a few plays before we scored,’ said Stout, who was only able to use Whightsil as a decoy in the second half. ‘He tried playing in second half, but couldn’t go.’
Stout is optimistic Whightsil will be able to play Friday against Hillsboro, however.
‘He’s got a strained ligament in his ankle,’ Stout said. ‘It was really sore this weekend, but it’s gotten better every day since.’
Without Whightsil, the Vandals were successful on just 1 of 8 pass attempts, while Greenville passed for 56 yards, completing 6 of 11 attempts.