It was obvious to anyone in attendance Friday night at Mark Greer Field that the Vandalia football team was vulnerable.
All one had to do was look at the Vandals’ sideline, where two-way standout Mitch Whightsil was relegated for the entire game against Hillsboro due to a lingering leg injury suffered in Week 4’s heartbreaking loss to Greenville.
What was not so obvious was exactly how vulnerable the Vandals were.
Though they were all able to play, starters Cody Cortelloni, Cory Bunker, Anthony Coney, Nick Slagle and Jake Etcheson were all nursing injuries that threatened to limit their effectiveness and open the door for a Hiltoppers’ team hungry for revenge after last year’s rare loss to the Vandals on their home field.
That said, coach John Stout couldn’t have been happier following his team’s 29-7 win over Hillsboro.
‘I’m just real proud of the effort,’ said Stout, whose Vandals bounced back strong from its loss to Greenville to improve to 4-1 overall and 1-1 in the SCC-East.
‘I said at half, ‘This will show us if we are who we think we are.’ I think we are who we said we are tonight. We overcame a lot of adversity this week. Coming back from last week’s tough loss, this was a very satisfying win.’
Granted, the game was far from a thing of beauty, as the Vandals were flagged 10 times for 72 penalty yards and turned the ball over twice.
And the contest was also much closer than the final score would indicate, as the Vandals led 7-0 at halftime and were up 14-7 midway through the third quarter.
But fortunately for Vandalia, four Hillsboro turnovers and a handful of big-time plays by Jake Etcheson and Cory Bunker in the backfield proved to be too much for the Hiltoppers to overcome in their second straight loss to the Vandals.
One could have never guessed Etcheson was playing hurt, as the senior rushed for a season-high 141 yards on 16 carries, including a 29-yard touchdown early in the second quarter that gave the Vandals a lead it would not relinquish.
Etcheson was just as impressive on special teams, returning two kickoffs and three punts for a grand total of 101 yards.
He finished with 242 all-purpose yards, helping make up for the absence of Whightsil.
‘He was playing with a lot of adrenaline,’ said Stout, when asked how Etcheson performed so well, despite being injured.
Bunker continued to show off his home-run ability, as he added 115 yards rushing on just seven carries, despite playing with a bad shoulder.
The lightning-quick sophomore scored two touchdowns – including a scintillating 68-yard scamper on the first play from scrimmage in the second half in which the 5-foot-9, 150-pound back used a pair of jukes to shake off a host of would-be Hillsboro tacklers before exploding up the left sideline for the end zone.
Hillsboro countered with an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown march that cut Vandalia’s lead to 14-7 with 7 1/2 minutes to go, but Drew Bell made it a two-possession game at the end of the third quarter by nailing a 35-yard field goal after a Vandals’ drive stalled at the Hillsboro 22.
‘That was a big play,’ said Stout, who didn’t hesitate to attempt the field goal on 4th and 9. ‘It gave us some breathing room.’
The two teams would go on to combine for five turnovers the rest of the way, but the Vandals were the only team that would manage to capitalize, allowing them to pull away.
After trading turnovers and three-and-out possessions at the start of the fourth quarter, Etcheson returned a Hillsboro punt 33 yards to the Hiltoppers’ 17-yard line, setting the Vandals up for a game-clinching score with roughly six minutes to go.
Vandalia quickly moved the ball inside Hillsboro’s 10-yard line, but the Hiltoppers recovered a Bell fumble in the end zone for a touchback, giving themselves a chance with 4 1/2 minutes remaining.
Bell wasted little redeeming himself, however, picking off a Nolan Rappe pass on the very next play and running the ball back 25 yards for a crucial score.
‘I’ve got a biased opinion, but I thought Drew was down,’ said Stout of Bell’s fumble. ‘But he came back and picked that pass off and found the wall (of blockers).’
Nick Slagle then came up with his second fumble recovery of the game on the first play of Hillsboro’s ensuing drive, and Bunker immediately scored on a 26-yard run up the gut, giving Vandalia two touchdowns in the span of 12 seconds.
In addition to the aforementioned regulars who played hurt, Stout commended the efforts of Kyle Dugan (OL) and Jacob Whalen (OL/DL), varsity newcomers who filled in admirably in the trenches in the Vandals’ gutsy victory.
Note: As of press time Wednesday morning, Whightsil is questionable for Friday’s game at Litchfield. It is believed that Whightsil injured either his calf or Achilles against Greenville, and an MRI will be performed soon. ‘He’s not in a lot of pain,’ Stout said. ‘It’s just really weak.’