Three factors kept the Vandalia football team from elevating a great 2008 season into, perhaps, the greatest season in program history on Saturday: turnovers, penalties – and arch rival Greenville’s ability to take advantage of both.
It all added up to a nasty case of dj vu for the Vandals in a season-ending 28-10 loss.
The similarities to the Vandals’ only other setback during an otherwise spectacular season – Week 4’s 14-7 loss to the Comets – were uncanny, as VCHS bowed out in the second round of the IHSA Class 3A playoffs after Greenville scored 21 unanswered points in the second half.
Just as they did in Week 4’s showdown with the Comets, the Vandals (9-2) were forced to play the second half without one of their top performers, as Jake Etcheson suffered a concussion after a helmet-to-helmet collison with a Comets player just before intermission.
‘We lose Mitch (Whightsil to injury) the first time and Jake the second time,’ Vandals coach John Stout said. ‘… But I guess that’s part of football.’
The Vandals handled Etcheson’s injury as well as could be expected. But they were unable to overcome three second-half turnovers, two of which led to Greenville insurance touchdowns.
A late turnover proved costly in Week 4 as well, setting up the Comets’ game-winning score.
But the second time around, it was a special teams gaff that put Greenville up for good, as sophomore Zach Westfall gave the Comets a 14-10 lead with an 89-yard kickoff return with 4:45 remaining in the third quarter.
Prior to Westfall’s game-changing play, the Vandals were enjoying a 10-7 lead following a Drew Bell 30-yard field goal.
‘That score was a huge turning point in our favor,’ Greenville coach Todd Hutchinson said. ‘They had controlled things the entire game.’
Stout agreed with his counterpart.
‘Everything was going our way until the kickoff,’ Stout said.
Nothing went right for the Vandals the rest of the way, however – a sharp contrast to a start that couldn’t have been any better.
The Vandals opened the game with a clock-eating, 16-play touchdown march that covered 89 yards.
They wasted little time showing off a passing game that has improved leaps and bounds since the last time they saw the Comets, as Bell connected on 4 of 4 attempts – including a 29-yard touchdown strike to Cory Bunker on 4th-and-14.
Bunker managed to shake off a pair of would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone, and Bell followed with a PAT for a 7-0 Vandals lead with 4:42 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Vandals’ defense followed up with an impressive 3-and-out opening stand before coming up with a pair of big plays to snuff out a promising Comets’ drive on Greenville’s second possession.
The Comets looked poised to even the score after reaching Vandalia’s 25-yard line, but Caleb Walton quickly pushed the host team back with a momentum-crushing sack of quarterback Todd Eaton.
Two plays later, Coda Denton pressured Eaton into an incomplete pass on 4th-and-15, as Greenville turned the ball over to the Vandals on downs.
The Comets (11-0) managed to put together an 89-yard touchdown drive just before halftime, however, taking some of the steam out of the Vandals’ impressive start.
Greenville appeared to be going nowhere fast early in the drive, as they were facing a third-and-11 situation from their own 11-yard line.
But the Comets were awarded a first down on a controversial holding penalty – one of several disputed flags thrown against VCHS in the game.
The Comets then methodically worked their way past midfield before Etcheson suffered his aforementioned concussion near the Vandals’ sideline in the process of pursuing a Greenville ballcarrier on a reverse.
Etcheson was so shaken up that he had to be taken off the field on a stretcher at halftime. Fortunately, he was released from the hospital Saturday night and has been cleared to start practicing for the upcoming wrestling season in a week.
‘He was pretty much out of it over here,’ Stout said. ‘He thought he was on the Greenville sideline and really didn’t know what town he was in.’
Greenville was penalized for blocking in the back on the play, pushing it back to the Vandalia 48, but that infraction was quickly negated by a holding penalty on the Vandals.
The roller-coaster theme continued over the next two snaps, as Will Cowger hit Eaton for a big loss on first down, pushing GV back to the 50, only to see Eaton bounce back with strike to Zach Westfall, who took the ball all the way to the 1-yard line before Devin Meisinger punched in the Comets’ first touchdown with 42 seconds to go.
A Blake Tebbe PAT allowed Greenville to go into the lockerroom tied 7-7 with the Vandals despite an opening 24 minutes in which VCHS was in complete control.
‘I thought we had the momentum up until the last two minutes of the first half,’ Stout said. ‘We had that drive stopped (before the holding call), and I was thinking, possibly, we could go in up 14-0 at half or 10-0 at half.
‘Then it was kind of like their end-of-the-game drive the first time. They just kept making plays on third down.’
The second half couldn’t have started better for Vandalia, as Bell recovered a Greenville fumble at the Comets’ 37 on the first play from scrimmage.
But the Vandals were unable to take full advantage.
The Vandals drove inside Greenville’s 10 after the turnover, but fumbled the ball back to the Comets on first and goal from the 9.
Greenville went three and out on its next drive, and the Vandals had good field position after returning the Comets’ punt to GHS’s 44. Bell nailed a 30-yard field goal six plays later, giving Vandalia a 10-7 lead.
Unfortunately, it was a lead the Vandals would enjoy for just 13 seconds, thanks to Westfall, who went untouched after getting a couple of key blocks.
Nick Slagle countered with a solid kickoff return, as the Vandals started their next drive near midfield, and Bell followed with a big run on first down.
But the Comets stripped Bell of the ball at the end of the carry, and Greenville embarked on a 15-play, 62-yard touchdown drive that put them up 20-10 with 9:19 to go.
Devin Meisinger capped the drive with a play that summed up Greenville’s good fortune in the second half, as he recovered his own fumble in the end zone.
In turn, the Vandals’ misfortune continued on their next drive, as Bell threw an interception after a pair of controversial pass attempts came up short.
Mitch Whightsil appeared to haul in the first, but it was ruled Bell’s pass skipped off the turf before he was able to secure it. The Vandalia sideline then felt Greenville should have been flagged for pass interference, as Bunker was unable to come up with a leaping grab after struggling to free himself from a pair of Comet defenders.
Following the interception, Greenville capitalized again, icing the game with a 46-yard touchdown drive highlighted by a 28-yard run by Eaton, which was set up by a huge block by Derek Atchsion.
Eaton found Atchison moments later for a first-down strike on 4th-and-5 from the Vandals’ 23 before Doll found the end zone for the second time, bowling in this time from 2 1/2 yards out.
‘They made the plays when they had to, and that’s the sign of a good team,’ Stout said.
Vandalia wound up out-gaining Greenville 299-233 in total offensive yardage. But Greenville held distinct advantages in the turnover and penalty yardage departments, which proved to be the difference.
Vandalia was flagged 10 times for 72 yards, compared to just two penalties for 25 yards for Greenville. The Vandals had three turnovers, compared to just one for the Comets.
‘The guys have been pretty disciplined all year and the one thing we’ve been able to do well is to capitalize on the other team’s mistakes,’ Hutchinson said.
‘The biggest lesson (learned today) is that we have to take care of the ball,’ Stout said.
The Vandals said goodbye to 16 seniors Saturday – a vast majority of which had been major contributors to an unprecedented run of success the past three seasons (VCHS has gone 21-10 during that span).
‘They were the first class to go to the playoffs three years in a row,’ Stout said. ‘They were just a great class, and we’re going to miss them. Our seniors have just had a heck of a ride for four years.’
But despite losing Bell, Whightsil, Etcheson, Slagle, Cody McGee, Denton, Chris Balderass, Clint Devall, Justin Finley, David Downs, Cody Cortelloni, Jacob Rush, Devin Cook, Tim Dunahee, Scott Boas and Anthony Coney to graduation, Stout believes the Vandals will return enough talent next year to entertain thoughts of an unprecedented fourth straight playoff run.
‘I think that would be in our sights,’ said Stout of the playoffs. ‘We lose a lot, but we have some people coming back and a lot of good sophomores coming up.
‘I don’t think it’s out of the relm of possibility for this group to come back and do some of the same stuff as we did this year.’
Three all-conference caliber juniors – Bunker, Walton and fellow defensive end Will Cowger – give VCHS an outstanding core.
But the key to continued success will hinge on next year’s team equaling or exceeding the work put in the previous three offseasons.
‘A positive lesson (learned this season ) is that offseason work pays dividends,’ Stout said. ‘I think that’s shown the last three years. Hopefully, we can continue doing that.’