Vail Christian falls to Justice in overtime
GYPSUM, Colorado – After the postgame prayer, Justice head coach T.J. Cole yelled out “Vail Christian, I tip my hat to you.”
He did so, and it was a gracious and sincere gesture, and hopefully, Vail Christian in time can appreciate it. The Saints took Justice, the best team in the Central League, to overtime Friday night at Hot Stuff Stadiumbefore falling, 26-20.
“We just went toe-to-toe with the best team in the league right now,” Saints coach Tim Pierson said. “We did it without our right guard. We did it without our starting corner back. We had our third-string running back run for 173 yards. That’s a huge testament to our senior leadership. As bad as this loss hurts, as a coach, I am proud of how far we have come.”
In the overtime, Justice’s Iaian McGhee ran from five yards out for a touchdown. Vail Christian’s Kieran Hurtt made what looked like a huge tackle, stopping the Phoenix’s two-point conversion.
The Saints got the ball on Justice’s 10 for their overtime possession. Hurtt rumbled for four yards. On second down, Vail Christian’s Ryan Barry fumbled the ball, ending the game. While Barry was understandably distraught, the loss was not on him.
If anything, the Saints played well above their talent level on the field and there were numerous turning points throughout the game.
Vail Christian took a surprising 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The Saints needed just two plays to score on their opening drive. Freshman Mack Cooper, who ended the night with a staggering 173 yards, flew 43 yards on the Saints’ first play from the line of scrimmage. Quarterback Larry Cavanaugh hit Teller Emmer for 41 yards and touchdown on the next play.
After Vail Christian forced a fumble, the Saints’ offense took the ball down the field again, capped by a 15-yard scramble by Cavanaugh.
The Saints missed on two glorious opportunities to pad their lead. They got the ball down to the Phoenix 12 later in the first quarter, only to fumble. In the second quarter, Justice had to punt, but the Saints muffed the return, giving the Phoenix the ball on the Vail Christian 35.
That turnover got Justice on the board as Phoenix quarterback Zach Rios called his own number from one yard out and then connected with fullback Esteban Cevallos for the two-pointer to make it 14-8.
Vail Christian’s defense stood again to start the second half when freshman Austin Ellsworth picked off Rios. Opposing teams have tried to pick on the freshman this year, but not with much success. That was Ellsworth’s sixth interception of the year.
“(The freshmen) are blowing me out of the water,” Cavanaugh said. “So many of them are stepping up to high school football and playing hard. I’m shocked. I’m so glad to have them on our team.”
From there, Vail Christian mounted one of its most impressive drives of the season, going 79 yards on 18 plays. With the drive, the Saints went up 20-8.
The Phoenix answered with its own drive, capped by another quarterback sneak by Rios. On its next possession, Justice finally got McGhee, its most versatile and potent weapon, rolling. He ran for 32 yards of his team’s 52-yard drive in the fourth quarter. McGhee rolled in from three yards out to tie the game at 20. Hurtt stuffed Rios on the conversion, keeping the game tied.
The Saints got to midfield, thanks to a rough-and-tumble run by Cavanaugh and a gutsy and successful call by Pierson to go for it on fourth-and-5 from the 48. Barry rumbled for a 6-yard gain on that play.
But a fumbled snap ended that drive and almost gave the Phoenix a chance to win it regulation. With 1.5 seconds left in the game, Justice’s Benito Duran lined up for a 33-yard field goal. The Saints blocked the kick, but McGhee scooped up the ball and ran it into the end zone.
The touchdown, however, was called back by an illegal block to the back, sending the game into overtime.
With the loss Vail Christian fell to 2-3 in the Central and 2-4 overall. The Saints are at North Park next Saturday, while Justice (4-0, 4-1) is home for Maranatha Christian.
Sports Editor Chris Freud can be reached at 970-748-2934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.