Vail Christian outlasts Merino, 38-34
EAGLE-VAIL — Hey, those boys from the mountains can play some ball, too.
Vail Christian football showed a little bit of everything — finesse, power and grit — in a dramatic 38-34 win over Merino, from the Plains League, which is essentially royalty in the world of Colorado 8-man football, at Eagle-Vail’s Phelan Field on Saturday.
“I wasn’t here when we played them my eighth-grade year, but I’d heard stories,” Vail Christian junior Alex Davis said. “We had the utmost respect for them. They’re an awesome physical football team and beating them is just surreal.”
For four years, to qualify for the state playoffs, Central League teams had to play squads from the Plains in crossover games. The Central League went 0-for-16. In the last 10 8-man state title games, 14 of the 20 teams playing have been from the Plains League with that circuit winning seven times.
“It’s huge for us and this football program,” Saints coach Tim Pierson said. “I’m proud of our seniors. Merino is a great team. They’ve got great seniors and a great tradition. That adds to the victory and what it means to our kids. We’ve experienced a lot and played at their place and things didn’t go our way.”
That’s a typical understatement from an understated coach. Merino and Vail Christian have met up three times in the postseason and the Rams had won, 42-12 (2011), 38-0 (2009) and 59-6 (2007).
So while Vail Christian had home field and was the No. 8 seed against No. 9 Merino, most of the state was expecting a Rams victory.
And early on, it looked like Merino would win in a walk. The Rams scored two touchdowns during the first six minutes for a 14-0 lead.
Merino’s Jaxson Hastings sacked Saints quarterback Mike Lange on the first play of the ensuing possession, and the Saints faithful couldn’t be faulted for thinking that this wasn’t going to be a good day.
But the Saints ground attack got going with a heavy helping up Sug Ellsworth up the middle. Not only was Vail Christian gaining ground, but this type of running opened up runs around the end later in the game and set the table for play-action passes.
On second-and-20 from the Rams’ 45, Lange to Max Shramm for 40 yards paved the way for an 5-yard touchdown run from Ellsworth.
The Saints converted on the 2-point conversion — those conversions would loom large late — and were back in the game down 14-8 after one quarter.
The Saints defense also started to step up its game as Schramm recovered a fumble from Merino quarterback Curtis Tappy. A few plays later, Ellsworth rumbled 39 yards for a score and Clayton Davis hauled in the conversion for a 16-14 lead.
Vail Christian’s defense bent, but did not break, forcing Marino to turn the ball over on downs on the Saints’ 23.
And then Lange started making stuff happen. The senior quarterback took off on the bootleg and hit Clayton Davis for a 75-yard scoring strike. It was the first of three touchdown passes for No. 3, who was drawing some comparisons to a pretty well-known football player.
“Johnny Manziel comes to mind a little bit,” Ellsworth said. “When he scrambles, you’ve just got to pick up a block and hope for the best. He’s a phenomenal athlete and we’re blessed to have him.”
Yes, the Saints are as Lange would demonstrate in the second half.
Vail Christian went 9-0 during the regular season, breezing to a Central League title, which was both good and bad. Good for the obvious reason, but difficult because the Saints hadn’t played a full 48-minute game all season.
Late in the first half, Tappy hit Logan Readebaugh for 57-yard trip to the end zone. To start the second half, the Rams’ Jorden Jole raced 64 yards for a 28-24 lead and Vail Christian looked exhausted.
“We know we’re going to face adversity, and when it comes, we know we’ve got to overcome it,” said Ellsworth, who was one of several Saints cramping up. “Our leadership with the juniors and seniors is fantastic. We really showed what Vail Christian football is all about.”
With Ellsworth out that series, the Davises, Alex and Clayton, went to work. The Saints drove, but stalled on the Merino 10-yard line, facing fourth-and-7.
Lange bootlegged/ran for his life, and somehow found Shramm for a completion, and Mr. Schramm did the rest, plowing his way through the Merino defense before hitting the pylon for six.
“It was a pass of some sort,” Lange said. “It was a little weird. Not all the guys got open at first. Everyone was on their blocks. I was able to run around a little bit and then Max got open. Schrammy did a great job of getting open and finishing that run.”
To start the fourth, Vail Christian stuffed Merino’s Jole on a fourth-and-2. The measurement, astutely called by Doug Bruce in the booth, was just three lengths short.
The Saints couldn’t do anything offensively with the possession and flirted with disaster on a bad snap on the ensuing punt. It went right over punter Clayton Davis, but he chased it down and somehow got off one of the more elegant 15-yard punts one will ever see.
“I probably shouldn’t say what the first thought was,” Davis said. “I always have my dad on the sideline. … He tells me whether I can run or just punt it. He was screaming, ‘Punt, punt, punt,” So I just got it off as quick as I could.”
With the Rams on their 38 as opposed to deep in Saints’ territory, Vail Christian’s defense did the job. Ryan Hethcote stoned Jole on fourth-and-3.
The Saints got tagged with a 15-yard block–to-the-back penalty and had second-and-23 from the Rams’ 45. Lange to Davis for 20 yards made that more manageable. Merino’s Trace Elliott dumped Ellsworth for a 5-yard loss on third down, though.
But fourth down was Lange’s happy place on Saturday. He laced a 30-yard touchdown strike to Alex Davis.
“It was a post route and we knew we had to get it,” Davis said. “The kid was playing inside of me and he got a pretty good jam. I knew I had to release inside. I had a step on him, cut to the post and Mike Lange threw me a dime.”
Lange to Ellsworth on the conversion was crucial as it made it a two-score game at 38-28 with 4:32 left in the game.
D’oh and done
The first rule defensively in a two-score game is don’t let anyone get behind you. Vail Christian naturally did. Tappy to Redabaugh for 39 yards put the Rams on the Saints 1. Jole scored from one yard out and Merino closed to 38-34.
The Rams did attempt an onside kick, but it was out of bounds. Two Ellsworth runs burned the Rams’ final timeouts. Lange called his own number for six yards and first down to end the game.
“It’s a great feeling to be 10-0 and to be one of the last eight teams in the state,” Ellsworth said. “It goes to the coaches and the players.”
Vail Christian is at Dayspring Christian next week for the state quarterfinals.