For 11 long years, the Vandalia football program had a monkey on its back.
But it took just 77 seconds for the Vandals to shake that stubborn primate loose Friday night.
Coach John Stout’s team then sacked the past into oblivion, rolling to a 34-12 win over Flora at Mark Greer Field for its first postseason victory since 1997.
Jake Etcheson scored from 89 yards out on the opening kickoff and added an 11-yard TD run a little more than a minute later, after VCHS recovered a Flora fumble.
The Vandals (9-1) were then able to overcome 270 yards passing by Wolves quarterback Trent Tackitt by managing to sack the elusive sophomore eight times and forcing three more Flora turnovers.
The victory was a crucial step for a Vandalia team that made the playoff the previous two years, only to suffer quick opening-round exits both times.
‘We couldn’t get past the first round the past two years,’ Stout said. ‘We finally got the monkey off our back tonight.’
In addition to a quick start and another outstanding defensive effort, the key to the Vandals getting over the hump was a win-or-bust attitude.
‘They came out with the attitude that if we don’t win in the first round, the season’s a disappointment,’ Stout said. ‘Really, for our program, we had to get this one tonight.’
Now, the Vandals can concentrate on doing something no VCHS football team has done since 1976 – advance to the Elite Eight.
And they’ll have a chance to do so Saturday at 1 p.m. at Edwardsville High School against their biggest rival.
The Vandals will look to avenge Week 4’s heartbreaking 14-7 loss to undefeated Greenville (10-0) and end a nine-game losing streak to their South Central Conference East Division nemesis.
‘We made a couple mistakes in Week 4 (that cost us),’ Stout said. ‘It was a battle then, and it’s going to be another big battle.’
Though the talk of the town from the time the Class 3A playoff pairings were released centered on Vandalia’s potential showdown with Greenville, Stout says his team’s focus was on Flora from the get-go.
‘We just really didn’t talk about it,’ said Stout of another opportunity to play the Comets. ‘We were just focused on getting better. Nobody mentioned (Greenville) at all. It was Flora, Flora, Flora.’
The Wolves (7-3) can attest to that, as the Vandals built up a 14-0 lead before fans had a chance to settle in.
Etcheson immediately served notice that the Vandals weren’t overlooking Flora, splitting a pair of defenders near midfield before going up the left sideline for an 89-yard touchdown return on the opening kickoff.
‘That’s something we’ve worked hard on all year,’ Stout said, ‘and that’s something we say before every game, ‘We’re going to score on special teams.’
‘It’s something that’s been coming along for us all year, and we just popped one off tonight.’
The Vandals’ defense then announced its presence with authority, as Scott Boas leveled Flora’s return man on the ensuing kickoff. Tackitt was then pressured into an incomplete pass before fumbling a snap on the Wolves’ second play from scrimmage.
Will Cowger recovered the fumble on Flora’s 23-yard line, and Etcheson found the end zone from 11 yards out three plays later on a sweep play to the left.
Mitch Whightsil followed with a 2-point conversion that had the Vandals enjoying a 14-0 cushion at the 10:43 mark of the first quarter.
The Vandals’ blitzkrieg-esque start proved simply too much for the young Wolves to overcome.
‘It’s an understatement to say it was a slow start,’ Flora coach Skip Dillon said. ‘You might be able to overcome that during the regular season, depending on who you play. But when you get into the top 32 in the state in the playoffs, they’re just too darned good.’
Mistakes continued to plague Flora in the second quarter, as Etcheson added another touchdown run on a sweep to the left – this time from 44 yards out – with the help of a Wolves missed assignment.
‘We had a little twist to (defend) that,’ said Dillon. ‘… But our guy obviously went inside when he was supposed to go outside. We got the kink worked out, but, obviously, it hurt us early.’
Trailing big and doing next to nothing on the ground early, the Wolves were forced to go to the air for the remainder of the game.
‘That was a key – we wanted to stop them and force them to throw,’ said Stout, whose team held 1,000-yard rusher Chris Beckham to just 18 yards on the ground.
Tackitt was up to the task, however, escaping a number of sacks – including a scramble late in the second quarter that allowed him to launch a 71-yard TD strike to Dakota Orel that got Flora on the board.
But, ultimately, the Vandals’ constant pressure caught up to Tackitt in the second half.
Senior tackle Tim Dunahee wound up bringing Tackitt down behind the line of scrimmage three times, while Cowger had a pair of sacks.
Walton and Denton added a sack apiece, and reserve Jake Whalen also got in on the fun, recording Vandalia’s eighth sack of the game in the fourth quarter.
Denton and Boas added interceptions to help neutralize 335 yards of total offense by the Wolves.
‘They were great,’ said Stout of his defense. ‘We were content with letting them try to dink the ball down the field on us and not give up a big play. We did on that scramble, but overall, our kids played great defensively again.
The Vandals extended their lead to 28-6 early in the third quarter, as Bell found Nick Slagle in the middle of the field for a 15-yard TD pass at the 8:32 mark.
VCHS continued to show a much-improved passing game throughout the second half, as Bell capped his second straight 100-plus yard passing night with a 25-yard fade-away touchdown bomb to Cory Bunker early in the fourth quarter.
Bell finished 8 for 18 passing for 122 yards, hooking up with four different receivers.
Despite claiming the program’s first playoff victory since 1997’s 41-27 win at Mt. Carmel, the Vandals remain hungry.
‘We’re happy to be where we are right now,’ Stout said, ‘but we’re not content.’