Vail Christian ousted in state quarterfinals
Sanford’s second half explosion ends Saints’ season at 10-1
Vail Christian was hoping to make their deepest playoff run in school history. Sanford was hoping to continue a revenge tour. Only one team could further their destiny.
After the first quarter of Saturday’s quarterfinal game between Sanford and Vail Christian in the Colorado 8-man state football tournament, it seemed like fans in the San Luis Valley were in for an old fashioned defensive battle. Sanford had relied on stingy defense to upset the six-time defending champs Sedgwick County in their first round game. Vail Christian, however, boasted a high-powered offense that came into the game averaging 402.6 yards and 32 points per game. Even though both teams struggled to put points on the board initially, that changed in a hurry throughout a nip and tuck game which ended with a flurry of fourth quarter scores and a 64-38 Sanford victory.
On the first play of their third drive of the game, Saints quarterback Taylor Shull ran the ball 56 yards to put the first points on the board. Running back Vincent Nowicki muscled his way past Mccray Larsen and Lincoln Reynolds for the two-point conversion to make it 8-0.
After hitting Jeffrey Hall on what ended up being a rare completion from Shull, the Saints were up 16-0. The offensive juggernaut appeared to be running away from the host Indians. Then, senior Kelton Gartrell spoke up.
Gartrell, who finished the game with four touchdowns, made it 16-6 with a 50-yard scamper. It was a struggle for Sanford to convert two-point conversions initially, and after a 73-yard screen play set up a second Gartrell rushing touchdown, a Gauge Lewis drop left them trailing 16-12.
“He’s a great player,” Vail Christian head coach Tim Pierson said. “We knew that going into the game.”
With 1:54 to go in the first half, Shull got into the end zone again, and at 24-12, it seemed again like a Saints steamroll was plausible. A 24-yard completion to Collin Stagner brought the Indians back into scoring territory. Gartrell caught a 20-yard pass from Josh Holman on the next play, making it 24-18 going into the half.
Starting the second half, the Saints mixed things up in the backfield, placing Shull in the blocker position and direct snapping to Peter Mills and Vincent Nowicki. The innovation was effective — a direct snap and 40-yard run to the house from Nowicki, who got a big block from Shull, made it 30-18.
But Sanford was not about to lose their final game in their San Luis Valley stadium as the Indians — a name and likeness change is forthcoming next season.
A 12-yard Josh Holman touchdown run made it 32-26. Then, a long pass from Shull intended for Nowicki in the end zone was intercepted by Gauge Lewis. Lewis, who has stepped up many times throughout the year, gave life back to the Indians and shifted the momentum for good. His play was timely, as on the previous possession Gartrell had limped off the field. But the senior running back would return with a vengeance.
A 44-yard run set up another Holman touchdown run. Gartrell’s two-point conversion gave the Indians their first lead, 34-32. A long Holman touchdown pass made it 42-32 with 11 minutes remaining.
The Saints didn’t give up, however, scoring a touchdown to make it 42-38. “I’m proud that they kept battling,” Pierson said in speaking on the resilience of his group. “Things can change in a hurry in 8-man football. I’m proud of how hard they played.”
Another Gartrell score made it 48-38, and from there the Indians never looked back.
Gartrell finished the game with over 262 yards on the ground, 93 through the air and four touchdowns. Shull led the way on the ground for the Saints, rushing for over 175 yards.
In the fourth quarter, a 44-yard Holman run was a statement score with 2:45 to go. Then, a Cash Caldon 54-yard pick six put an exclamation point on the retribution win over the previously undefeated Vail Christian team.
Considering the maturation of the senior led team, the loss was an emotional one for Pierson and the Saints. “Great group of seniors — their leadership was incredible,” he said after the game. “They had a great season.”
Sanford’s revenge tour — Sedgwick County beat them in the state title game in 2020 and Vail Christian handed them their first loss this season in September — continues next week in the state semi-finals against Mancos, who handed them a 60-24 loss on Oct. 15.