It was a perfect ending to another perfect season by the Vandalia Youth Organization eighth-grade football team.
Aaron Harter’s leaping grab in the right corner of the end zone as time expired Saturday gave the Junior Vandals a 14-8 victory on their biggest rival’s home field, closing out a memorable run in unforgettable fashion.
‘It was exciting, it was emotional – I can’t wait until these kids get to high school’ said eighth-grade coach Smoky Newsom, whose team drove 75 yards in the final 2:35 to wrap up its third straight 8-0 season and finish off its VYO career with a 25-game winning streak.
‘I’m so excited for these kids,’ Newsom said. ‘They’re good kids, and they play hard and get after it. They showed heart and character today, coming back and pulling it out at the end.’
Overtime seemed to be an inevitability moments prior to Harter’s game-winning grab, as the Vandals were facing a fourth-down situation from their own 39-yard line with just 36 seconds remaining.
But Ritchey came up with a first-down run to the 44 before dropping back and firing a spiral downfield to Dalton Wehrle.
Wehrle pulled the pass in and was off to the races, as he nearly reached paydirt before being chased down by a Greenville defender at the Junior Comets’ 6-yard line.
‘I was very happy about that,’ said Newsom of Wehrle’s catch. ‘His uncle died (recently), but he wanted to come to the game today, and his family let him.
‘He made a good catch and run to set up the touchdown to win the game. … It was really emotional for him as a young man.’
Wehrle’s catch put the Junior Vandals tantalizingly close to the end zone, but they had just 8.8 seconds to get there.
‘I didn’t know if we had enough time,’ Newsom said.
A Ritchey pass was nearly picked off on first down, leaving just 3.4 seconds on the clock. But that proved to be just enough time for Ritchey to fire a high spiral that Harter snagged in the right corner of the end zone, setting off a wild celebration.
‘It was so sweet that he jumped up at full extension and brought it down,’ Newsom said.
Prior to Wehrle and Harter’s big receptions, the Junior Comets had contained the Junior Vandals’ capable passing attack.
‘It was kind of ironic,’ said Newsom of the fashion in which the Junior Vandals pulled out the victory. ‘We hadn’t been passing good today. We couldn’t get it off, and their defensive ends were really pursuing.
‘But we showed last week (in a 48-0 win over Litchfield) that we could pass. We’re not just a one-dimensional team.’
The conclusion of the fourth quarter was a sharp contrast to the final moments of the third quarter, when it seemed it was simply not going to be the Junior Vandals’ day.
The Junior Comets’ 8-0 lead appeared to be in jeopardy after they lost a fumble deep in their own territory. Vandalia quickly moved inside the 10-yard line, and Alex Newsom appeared to cut the host team’s lead to 8-6 on a bruising run between the tackles that resulted in chaos near the goal line.
One official signaled touchdown, while another ruled that Newsom had fumbled the ball and Greenville had recovered. After a long debate, the latter official’s ruling stood, and more misfortune came the visiting team’s way on the very next play.
The Junior Vandals appeared to cover a Greenville fumble in the end zone for a safety, but, instead, they were flagged for a facemask penalty, bringing the ball out to the Junior Comets’ 20-yard line.
The calls left Vandalia supporters incensed, but – to their credit – the Junior Vandals did not allow the calls to adversely affect their play in the fourth quarter.
‘That’s one thing I’ve instilled in our kids, that they can’t let the officials get under their skin,’ Newsom said. ‘If they call it, we can’t change anything.’
Greenville was unable to capitalize on the calls, as their ensuing drive went nowhere, and a bad punt set Vandalia up at Greenville’s 35-yard line.
Ryan Ambuehl got the Junior Vandals on the scoreboard moments later with a nice cutback TD run on 4th-and-8 from the 21.
Alex Newsom then got redemption for his controversial fumble with a 2-point conversion that tied the game at 8-8 with 5:36 remaining.
‘I was proud of that, that he was like, ‘I’m not going to let go of it again,” said coach Newsom.
Greenville once again managed little offensively on its next drive, as big hits by Leyton Godoyo and Chris Knebel highlighted an impressive defensive stand allowed the Junior Vandals’ offense to take care of business in regulation.
‘It was a whole team effort,’ Newsom said.
Newsom credited his team’s hustle and perseverance for the thrilling victory.
‘I’ve been telling them for four years, ‘Give me you all on every down, and good things will happen if you hustle all the time’,’ Newsom said. ‘And it happened.
‘They believe in themselves – they don’t get down on themselves. They just get after it and get it done.’
Newsom also gives credit to the team’s vast cast of supporters for its success over the past four years.
‘I’m very proud of each and every one of them – the parents and the players,’ Newsom said. ‘And I can’t say enough about my assistant coach, Tom Reams.’
The Junior Vandals wound up outscoring the opposition 228-28 during the season, recording four shutouts, not including a Week 6 forfeit at Gillespie.
The other three VYO teams did not fair as well as the eighth-graders Saturday.
The fifth-graders finished with a 4-4 record after a 12-8 loss, while the seventh-graders finished 2-6 following a 36-6 defeat. The sixth-grade ‘red’ Junior Vandals fell to the Junior Comets, 27-0.